Wednesday, 04 June 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Joseph Smith

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If history has shown us anything, it is that God favours blonde people with blue eyes. And in the case of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it’s fair to say that God had a total crush on him.

Born two days before Christmas 1805 in Vermont, Joseph Smith enjoyed a run-of-the-mill small-town upbringing until his family moved to New York State when he was 12 years old. This time of his life (when boys start asking Big Questions like “Why am I here?”, “Who created the universe?” and “Are girls’ germs really all that bad?”) coincided with the Second Great Awakening, an era in which empire-line frocks were on the way out and religious fervour was in.

If you were living in America in the middle-early bit of the 19th century, having sacred visions wasn’t just in vogue; it was practically mandatory. And the young Joseph Smith was nothing if not fashionable. At the age of 15, while he agonised over the apparently conflicting doctrines of rival churches, God and Jesus came to him and said,

All your sins are forgiven. Prepare for the second coming. Also, all the churches are corrupt and wrong and you should just rock out on your own.

Or something to that effect. God didn’t just like Joseph Smith. God liked him liked him.

Three years later, God sent an angel called Moroni* to visit Smith. Moroni appeared to Smith during his nightly prayers, and told him where to find a book made of engraved gold plates and a set of ‘seer stones’ which would help him translate the book’s holy mysteries**. But that wasn’t even the best bit. Moroni told Joseph that he’d find the book buried right near where he lived! There was no quest or sacrifice or test of faith or anything! Even Jesus had to wander around the desert for forty days and forty nights to please his Holy Father, but Joseph could just pop down the driveway and dig up a golden goodie-bag. Honestly, God would have been happy sharing his toothbrush with this guy.

Unfortunately for Smith (and for anyone impertinent enough to question his account), the angel Moroni forbade him to remove the golden plates, or to show them to anyone else. Luckily though, with the use of the seer stones, Smith was able to translate the engravings without even having them nearby. This he did by putting the stones into his hat, putting the hat over his face, and dictating the words that appeared to a scribe.

In 1830, after years of intermittent effort and the use of various scribes, Smith completed his translation and published The Book of Mormon, the basis of his soon-to-be-official new church.

I’m not going to go into the teachings of the Mormon Church or its later iterations, the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Needless to say, there’s enough bizarre material in Joseph Smith’s history to fill a whole bucket of crazy. But I have a word limit, and you’d probably like a cup of tea quite soon, so I’ll try to keep it short.

Smith married Emma Hale (his first and only proper wife, unless you count the 30 or so other Mormony wives, which Emma didn’t) in 1927. As his church grew and attracted followers, Smith continued to have visions and revelations that guided him in the construction and growth of the church and the administration of its teachings. After some other members claimed to have received significant revelations, Smith had a revelation that said he was the only person whose revelations were proper Mormon revelations, and everyone else should shut the hell up. Because God was totally smitten with him, obviously.

As the church developed and spread across the central states of the US, it continued to attract hordes of believers, but also rustled the jimmies of thousands of anti-Mormons across America. Included on the long list of Things People Didn’t Like About Mormons were polygamy; the establishment of covert militia; a desire for an independent Mormon state with separate laws and monetary systems; and generally being a little bit uppity. By the time he was 38, Joseph Smith had been arrested for bank fraud, tarred and feathered by an angry mob and announced his candidacy for US President.

Instead of becoming the President of the United States, Smith took the next best option and was arrested for inciting a riot. In June 1844, while Smith was in custody in Illinois, an angry mob (different to the previous, tarring-and-feathering angry mob) stormed the prison with guns blazing. Smith tried to escape out a window but fell to the ground. His attackers kept shooting to make sure he was really, properly dead.

Understandably, God was quite upset that his prettiest 20th-century prophet had been pumped full of bullets, but he stopped short of flying into an apocalyptic rage. Unlike the vengeful, murderous God of the First Testament, today’s modern deity likes a more subtle approach.

So the next time you see a pair of neatly-dressed, Bible-clutching chaps approaching your front door; remember: that’s God sulking.

*Moroni was pretty happy to get out of the office. He was sick of hanging around with the other angels, who teased him about his dorky name. Sure, he kept smiling and sparkling and shit, because what could he do? He was an angel.

** According to Smith’s accounts, the golden plates were written in a language called “Reformed Egyptian”. Linguistic and historical experts have never found any evidence of “Reformed Egyptian” in any other context. But since we’re talking about angels and magic stones and a talking floaty Jesus, that seems rather an insignificant detail.

joseph smith

Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity