My name is Bill, and I'm a Mormon.
It doesn't matter that I don't go to church, or that I doubt the story of the First Vision, or that I like to drink iced coffee. It won't matter even if the Latter-day Saints should someday excommunicate me, as seems likely. I will always see myself as one of the Mormon people, even if I no longer count myself part of the religion. We Mormons are very like Jews in that respect.
So, I'm a Mormon, and this is my story. But to understand my story, first you need to hear someone else's.
In September 1827, a young man named Joseph Smith carried a heavy object in a sack home to his wife and parents in Manchester, New York. He let no one see what lurked in the sack, but he claimed it was an ancient book bound from plates of hammered gold, engraved with strange characters that told the history of the early inhabitants of America.
Joseph already enjoyed a certain infamy in the region as a seer who, for a fee, could locate buried treasure by peering into a magic peepstone. The fact that his customers never unearthed much buried treasure seems not to have interfered with this infamy. Who could blame him, after all, if the treasures were warded by mischievous spirits who conjured their hoards to new locations when diggers got too close?
The discovery of the golden plates, however, was something different altogether. According to Joseph, an angel had led him to where they were buried, and his family and friends of course believed him. Over the next two years, he translated the engravings on the plates with the aid of seerstones, usually dictating to a scribe from behind a drawn curtain. When Joseph finished the translation, the angel conveniently took the plates off his hands, presumably so people who had heard rumors of the fabulous gold treasure would stop ransacking the poor Smith house.
The completed manuscript, published early in 1830 as The Book of Mormon, laid the theological foundation for the Church of Christ, which Joseph and five followers established shortly thereafter. Because of their belief in the divine origin of the book, the church's adherents became known as Mormonites. This must have frustrated Joseph no end, since he wanted people to understand that his followers worshipped Jesus Christ, not the ancient prophet Mormon (purported compiler of that ponderous volume of scripture).
It's one of those things that just didn't work out the way it was supposed to.
By the way, this is not the sort of book where very much works out the way it was supposed to. If you're looking for that sort of book, I don't want to mislead you. You're better off putting this one down and finding another one before you've gone so far you can't quit without feeling guilty.
That's not to say there's not a happy ending. But whether you find the ending happy or depressing may depend in large part on whether or not you're a Mormon, and that's something I have no way of knowing.
If Joseph's sect had acquired an inaccurate and pejorative nickname, it was also in the process of acquiring an army of converts to whom that nickname could be applied. After one month, the new church boasted forty members, and the number continued slowly to rise.
Late in 1830, Joseph sent his scribe Oliver Cowdery west to preach to the Indians, whose history was supposedly revealed in the Book of Mormon. Accompanied by Parley Pratt and two other men, Oliver enjoyed far greater success on this journey than he had on a trip to cities east, where Joseph had first dispatched him to try selling the book. But that success didn't come among the Indians, as Joseph had hoped. It came in Kirtland, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.
Just a few months earlier, a renegade Campbellite preacher named Sidney Rigdon had founded a small communistic colony in Kirtland with many of his followers, Parley Pratt among them. While visiting relatives in New York, Parley had converted to Mormonism, and almost immediately Joseph assigned him to accompany Oliver on his mission. Parley, of course, led Oliver straight to Kirtland, hoping to introduce his old friends to his new faith.
The Book of Mormon hit Sidney Rigdon, with his deep millenarian belief in the imminence of Christ's return, right between the eyes. Within three weeks, not just he but his entire colony of one hundred thirty souls were baptized Mormons. Sidney left immediately for New York, intent on meeting Joseph Smith for himself, traveling with one of his followers, a well-to-do hatter named Edward Partridge.
Joseph was delighted to receive Sidney, and to learn of the amazing success of Oliver's mission. He took Sidney as an advisor, and before the end of 1830 the older, more worldly preacher had firmly entrenched himself as Joseph's right-hand man. A month after that, Joseph ordered his followers in New York to relocate to Ohio.
Thanks to Oliver Cowdery and Parley Prattthe first real Mormon missionariesthe fledgling church had more than tripled its membership in just a month. Oliver and Parley had also sparked the first in a series of westward migrations that would eventually lead the Mormons to their permanent home in the Salt Lake Valley.
Better than preaching to a few lousy Indians, eh?
You may have noticed that I refer to these historic figures by their first names. This is a very Mormon thing to do. We feel as possessive of our historic figures as if they were family. Very often they are family.
That Campbellite hatter, Edward Partridge? He's my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, and he went on to become the church's first bishop. My mother, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather all possess (or possessed) the same sweet temper and cheerful disposition the history books attribute to him.
I wonder how sweet-tempered Edward would have been if he'd lived long enough to see Joseph marry not one but two of his daughters. Simultaneously, no less.
I never thought of this before, but I guess that makes Joseph my in-law. Twice.
Church rolls continued to swell, thanks to vigorous proselytizing and to Joseph's own increasingly accomplished preaching. "He appealed as much to reason as to emotion," wrote historian and biographer Fawn M. Brodie, "challenging his critics to examine the evidences of his divine authority . . . The importance of this appeal cannot be overestimated, for it drew into the Mormon ranks many able men who had turned in disgust from the excesses of the local cults. The intellectual appeal of Mormonism, which eventually became its greatest weakness as the historical and 'scientific' aspects of Mormon dogma were cruelly disemboweled by twentieth-century scholarship, was in the beginning its greatest strength."
By the summer of 1839, members numbered in the tens of thousandsmost of whom were willing to give up their homes and lands to follow Joseph wherever he happened to lead them next. This time the destination was an unpromising parcel of swamp on a bend of the Mississippi River in Illinois. Joseph called the place Nauvoo, which he claimed meant "beautiful plantation" in Hebrew.
Nauvoo wasn't exactly a beautiful plantation yet, but that didn't matter to most of the weary folk who tried to make homes there. Sidney Rigdon had by then convinced Joseph to change the name of the movement from the Church of Christ to the Church of Latter-day Saints, hoping to foil the hated nicknames that still clung to them like hot tar. Hot tar was something the Mormons knew well; it was regularly applied by the angry mobs in Missouri who wanted them out, along with more lethal enticements like fire and bullets.
At that point, a disease-infested swamp must have looked downright welcoming.
A note on nomenclature:
The Mormon Church is still fairly shrill about insisting that there is no Mormon Church, and no such thing as a Mormon. The official name of the organization today is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its leaders are still bloodying themselves trying to scrape off that pesky nickname they feel tarred on their backs. They would rather be called "Latter-day Saints" than "Mormons," and they prefer the contraction "Church of Jesus Christ" to "LDS Church."
Not only has time taken the teeth out of what was once a vicious slur, but the word has passed into such pervasive usage that it will be next to impossible to eradicate. When I look up "Latter-day Saint" in my dictionary, for example, I find no definition, but only a note directing me to see "Mormon."
I think Joseph and Sidney and the rest were a little too focused on names and not focused enough on attitude. It doesn't take a sociologist to see that things might not turn out the way they're supposed to when you say to your neighbors, "No, no, no, don't call us Mormonswe're Saints."
As the Saints set about reclaiming the Nauvoo swampland to build the great city Joseph envisioned, a virulent fever struck the settlement. Many died, and many more grew too sick to work. Joseph chose this odd time, in the midst of a devastating epidemic, to send his apostles abroad in quest of more converts. Brigham Young, still weak with fever, was among those who left their suffering families behind without so much as finished houses to live in. But that didn't prevent him from reaching England and taking charge of the nascent British Mission, which had been established in 1837.
Brigham had come to the right place at the right timea land of rampant poverty in an age of repressive taxes. Lured by promises of Edenlike prosperity in America, converts flocked to the church by the thousands, abandoning England and Wales on ships arranged through a church-managed charter service. The missionary effort took aim not just at the lowest of the low; one London paper complained about the number of skilled laborers and tradesmen the Mormons were bleeding off to the colonies.
When Brigham returned to Nauvoo, he left behind a smooth-running organization that continued to pump converts across the ocean and into Illinois. Once a purely American phenomenon, Joseph's church now flirted with international stature. The English beachhead gave the Mormons a whiff of their own potency, but it only whetted their appetites for more. In the years to come, even as the Saints were migrating to the Salt Lake Valley, they sent missionaries to Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Gibraltar, Malta, Turkey, Palestine, India, Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Hong Kong, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Mexico, Chile, and South Africa. They had set their sights on conquering the world.
And that's where I come in.
I don't mean just myself, of course. At some point the church discovered that its greatest weapon in the war for converts was the sincerity and enthusiasm of its young men. The day its leaders stopped asking married men to leave their families and farms for three or four years at a stretch and started tapping unattached teens as its ambassadors was the days things really started taking off.
In 1850, church membership totaled just over 50,000. By 1900 that figure was approaching 300,000, and by 1950 it had passed one million. Today, at the dawn of the century, membership totals more than eleven million around the world. Joseph's underdog sect has become the Little Church That Could, chugging into the new millennium under a frightful head of steamand its 60,000 missionaries are the ones down there shoveling the coal.
Those shovelers are bringing in converts at a rate of nearly 300,000 every year. That's ten a year for every pair of missionaries, or almost one a month. In my own two years as a missionary, I bagged twenty convertspar for the course, or maybe a little better if you take my arrest into account. I certainly did my part, and once upon a time I was proud of that fact, though now I have to wonder if I did those twenty souls any favors.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.