1902 Encyclopedia > Mormons


MORMONS, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are a religious sect founded by Joseph Smith at Manchester, New York, in 1830, and for the last thirty six years settled in Salt Lake City, Territory of Utah, United States.

Smith was born 23rd December 1805 at Sharon, Windsor country, Vermont, from which place ten years later his parents, a poor, ignorant, thriftless, and not too honest couple, removed to New York, where they settled on a small farm near Palmyra, Wayne county (then Ontario).

Joseph Smith image

Joseph Smith
Founder of the Mormons

Four years later, in 1809, they removed to Manchester, some 6 miles off; and it was at the latter place when fifteen years old that Joseph began to have his alleged visions, in one of which on the night of 21st September 1823 the angel Moroni appeared to him three times, and told him that the Bible of the Western Continent, the supplement to the New Testament, was buried in a certain spot near Manchester.

Thither, four years later and after due disciplinary probation, Smith went, and had delivered into his charge by an angel of the Lord a stone box, in which was a volume, 6 inches thick, made of thin gold plates 8 inches by 7, fastened together by three gold rings. The plates were covered with small writing in the "reformed Egyptian" tongue, and were accompanied by a pair of supernatural spectacles, consisting of two crystals set in a silver bow, and called "Urim and Thummim;" by aid of these the mystic characters could be read.

Being himself unable to read or write fluently, Smith employed as amanuensis one Oliver Cowdery, to whom, from behind a curtain, he dictated a translation, which, with the aid of a farmer, Martin Harris, who had more money than wit, was printed and published in 1830 under the title of The Book of Mormon, and accompanied by the sworn statement of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris that an angel of God had shown them the plates of which the book was a translation. This testimony all three, on renouncing Mormonism some years later, denounced as false; but meanwhile it helped Smith to impose on the credulous, particularly in the absence of the gold plates themselves, which suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

The Book of Mormon, in which Joseph Smith was declared to be God’s "prophet," with all power and entitled to all obedience, professes to give the history of America from its first settlement by a colony of refugees from among the crowd dispersed by the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel down to the year 5 A.D. These settlers having in course of time destroyed one another, nothing of importance occurred until 600 B.C., when Lehi, his wife and four sons, with ten friends, all from Jerusalem, landed on the coast of Chili [Chile].

All went well until the death of Lehi, when the divine appointment to the leadership of Nephi, the youngest son, roused the resentment of his elder brothers, who were in consequence condemned to have dark skins and to be an idle mischievous race, -- hence the North-American Indians.

Between the Nephites and the bad Hebrews a fierce war was maintained for centuries, until finally, in spite of divine intervention in the person of the crucified Christ, the Nephites fell away from the true faith, and in 384 A.D. were nearly annihilated by their dark-skinned foes in a battle at the hill of Cumorah, in Ontario county, New York.

Among the handful that escaped were Mormon and his son Moroni, the former of whom collected the sixteen books of records, kept by successive kings and priests, into one volume, which on his death was supplement by his son with some personal reminiscences and by him buried in the hill of Cumorah, -- he being divinely assured that the book would one day be discovered by God’s chosen prophet.

This is Smith’s account of the book; but in reality it was written in 1812 as an historical romance by one Solomon Spalding, crackbrained preacher; and the MS. falling into the hands of an unscrupulous compositor, Sidney Rigdon, was copied by him, and subsequently given to Joseph Smith. Armed with this book and with self-assumed divine authority, the latter soon began to attract followers.

On 6th April 1830 the first conference of the new sect, called by their neighbours Mormons, but by themselves subsequently Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ, was held at Fayette, Seneca country, New York, and in the same year another revelation was received by Smith, now began to baptize; but, his character, which was none of the best, too well known in Fayette, he found it convenient to remove with his followers, now thirty in number, to Kirtland, Ohio, which was to be the seat of the New Jerusalem.

Here he had another revelation, directing the saints to consecrate all their property to God and to start a bank. This being done and Smith appointed president of the bank, the country was soon flooded with worthless notes, which fact, added to other grievances, so enraged the neighbouring Christian settlers that on the night of 22nd May 1832 a number of them dragged Smith and Rigdon from beds and tarred and feathered them. One year later, the church was fairly organized, with three presidents, Smith, Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams, who were styled the first presidency, and entrusted with the keys of the last kingdom.

About this time the licentiousness of Smith might have led to the dissolution of the church but for the accession of Brigham Young, a Vermonth painter and glazier, thirty years old, who turned up in Kirtland in 1832, and was immediately ordained elder. Young’s indomitable will, persuasive eloquence, executive ability, shrewdness, and zeal soon made their influence felt, and, when a further step was taken in 1835 towards the organization of a hierarchy by the institution of the quorum of the "twelve apostles," who were sent out a proselytizing missionaries among the "gentiles," Young was ordained one of the "twelve" and despatched to preach throughout the eastern States.

In 1836 a large temple was consecrated in Kirtland, and in the following year Orson Hyde and Heber C. Kimball were sent off as missionaries to England, where, among the labouring masses in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, remarkable success.

Early in 1838 the Kirtland bank failed, and Smith and Rigdon fled to Caldwell county, Missouri, where a large body of the saints, after having been driven successively from Jackson and Clay counties, had taken refuge and flourished.

Smith’s troubles, however, continued to increase. His gross profligacy had repelled many of his leading supporters and bred internal dissensions, while from the outside the brethren were harassed and threatened by the steadily growing hostility of the native Missourians. To counteract the effort of his enemies, a secret society was organized in Smith’s favour in October 1838, called the Danites, with the avowed purpose of supporting Smith at all hazards, of upholding the authority of his revelation and decrees as superior to the laws of the land, and of helping him to get possession, first of the State, then of the United States, and ultimately of the world.

To such a height did the inner dissensions and the conflicts with the "gentiles" grow that they assumed the proportions of a civil war, and necessitated the calling out of the State militia. Defying the legal officers, Smith fortified the town and armed the saints, but finally had to succumb to superior numbers. Smith and Rigdon were arrested and imprisoned on a charge of treason, murder, and felony, and their followers to the number of 15,000 crossed over into Illinois and settled near Commerce, Hancock county. Here they shortly afterwards rejoined by Smith, who succeeded in escaping from prison, and, having obtained a charter, they founded the city of Nauvoo.

Such were the powers granted them by this charter as to render the city practically independent of the State Government, and to give Smith all but unlimited civil power. He organized a military body called the Nauvoo legion, of which he constituted himself commander with the title of lieutenant-general, while he was also president of the church and mayor of the city. On 6th April 1841 the foundations of the new temple were laid, and the city continued to grow rapidly in prosperity and size.

But Smith’s vices were beginning to bear fruit. Some years previously he had prevailed on several women to cohabit with him, and in order to pacify his lawful wife and silence the obligations of the saints he had a revelation on 12th July 1843 expressly establishing and approving polygamy.

The proclamation of the new doctrine excited widespread indignation, which found special expression in the pages of the Expositor, a newspaper published by an old friend of Smith, one Dr Foster. Smith at once caused the Expositor printing-office to be razed and Foster expelled, on which the latter procured a warrant for the arrest of Smith, his brother Hyrum, and sixteen other. Smith resisted; the militia was called out; the Mormons armed themselves; and a civil war seemed imminent, when the governor of the State persuaded Smith to surrender and stand his trial.

Accordingly, on 27th June 1844 he and Hyrum were imprisoned in Carthage jail; but that same night a mob broke into the prison and shot the two men dead. This shooting was the most fortunate thing that had ever happened to the Mormon cause, investing the murdered president with the halo of martyrdom, and effacing public recollection of his vices in the luster of a glorious death.

Of the confusion that followed Smith’s "taking off" Brigham Young profited by procuring his own election to the presidency by the council of the "twelve apostles," -- a position for which his splendid executive abilities well fitted him, as subsequent events abundantly proved.

The following year witnessed what appeared to be the culmination of their misfortunes. The legislature of Illinois repealed the charter of Nauvoo, and so critical did the situation become that the leaders resolved to emigrate immediately, and preparations were begun for a general exodus westward. Early in 1846 a large number of the body met at Council Bluffs, Iowa, and those who had stayed behind soon found cause to regret that they too had not left Nauvoo, as in the September of the same year that city was cannonaded, and the Mormons were driven out.

Meanwhile pioneers had been dispatched to the Great Salt Lake valley, Utah, and, their report proving favourable, large body of emigrants was marched with military discipline across the wilderness to the valley, where they immediately proceeded to found Salt Lake City, and where on 24th July 1847 they were joined by their chief, Brigham Young.

In the May following the main body of the saints set out rejoin their brethren, and in the autumn of that year reached Salt Lake City. Large tracts of land were at once put under cultivation, a great city sprang up as by magic, and the untiring industry, energy, and zeal of the emigrants turned a barren wilderness into a fertile and blooming garden.

An emigration fund was organized, missionaries were sent out, and soon settlers began to pour in from all quarters of the globe, particularly from Great Britain, Sweden and Norway, and in less numbers from Germany, Switzerland, and France. Strangely enough, and the fact deserves emphasis, Ireland has furnished few if any recruits to the cause of Mormonism.

In March 1849 a convention was held at Salt Lake City, and a State was organized under the name of Deseret, meaning "the land of the honey-bee." A legislature was also elected, and a constitution framed, which was sent on to Washington. This Congress refused to recognize, and by way of compromise for declining to admit the proposed new State into the Union President Fillmore in 1850 organized the country occupied by the Mormons into the Territory of Utah, with Brigham Young as governor.

District judges were also appointed by the Federal Government; but in 1851, a few months after their appointment, they were forced to leave by the aggressive tactics of Young. Such bold defiance of the Federal Government could not be ignored; Brigham was suspended from the governorship, and Colonel Steptoe of the United States army appointed in his stead.

The new governor, backed by a battalion of soldiers, arrived in Utah in August 1854; but so strong was the opposition which he met with that he dared not assume office, and was forced to content himself with merely wintering in Salt Lake City, after which he withdrew his troops to California.

Nor did the other civil officers appointed by the United States Government at the same time show any bolder front. In February 1856 a band of armed Mormons broke into the courtroom of the United States district judge, and forced Judge Drummond to adjourn his court sine die. His surrender precipitated the flight of the other civil officers, and with the sole exception of the United States Indian agent they withdrew from Salt Lake City.

These facts led President Buchanan to appoint a new governor in the person of Alfred Cumming, the superintendent of Indian affairs on the upper Missouri, who in 1857 went to Utah, accompanied by Judge Eckels of Indiana as chief justice, and by a force of 2500 soldiers.

Enraged by this aggressive action, Brigham Young boldly called the saints to arms. In September the United States army reached Utah, but on 5th and 6th October a band of mounted Mormons destroyed a number of its supply trains, and a few days later cut off 800 oxen from its rear and drove them into Salt Lake City. The result was that the United States army, now commanded by Colonel A. S. Johnston, was compelled -- it being now mid-November -- to go into winter quarters at Black’s Forks, near Fort Bridger.

In the same year a party of Mormons and Indians, instigated and led by a Mormon bishop named John D. Lee attacked a train of 150 non-Mormon emigrants at Mountain Meadows, near Utah, and massacred every soul. Governor Cumming at once declared the Territory in a state of rebellion; but in the spring of 1858, though the intervention of Thomas L. Kane of Pennsylvania, armed with letters of authority from President Buchanan, the Mormons were induced to submit to the Federal authority, and accepted a free offer of pardon made to them by the United States Government as the condition of their submission.

Matters being thus settled, the Federal troops encamped on the western shore of Lake Utah, 40 miles from Salt Lake City, where they remained until withdrawn from the Territory in 1860.

On the close of the American Civil War a Federal governor was again appointed, and in 1871 polygamy was declared to be a criminal offence, and Brigham Young was arrested. This action, however, on the part of the United States Government was merely spasmodic, and the Mormons continued to practice polygamy, and to increase in wealth and numbers until 29th August 1877, when Brigham Young died, leaving a fortune of $2,000,000 (£400,000) to 17 wives and 56 children.

He was succeeded in office by John Taylor, an Englishman, although the actual leadership fell to George Q. Cannon, "first counselor" to the president, and one of the ablest men in the sect.

The year 1877 was otherwise signalized in Mormon history by the trial, conviction, and execution of John D. Lee for the Mountain Valley massacre of 1857.

Of late years the question of Mormonism has largely occupied public attention. In 1873 Mr Frelinghuysen introduced a bill severely censuring polygamy, and declaring that the wives of polygamists could claim relief by action for divorce. In 1874 the committee of the House of Representatives reported a bill which reduced Utah to the position of a province, placing the control of affairs in the hands of Federal officials, and practically abolishing polygamy.

In the same year George Q. Cannon was elected a delegate from Utah, and though his election was contested it was confirmed by the House of Representatives. This decision, however, was accompanied by the passing of a resolution by a vote of 127 to 51, appointing a committee of investigation into Delegate Cannon’s alleged polygamy, -- he having, it was asserted, four wives.

Later in the same year the Utah Judiciary Bill, attacking the very foundation of Mormonism, passed the House in spite of the eloquent opposition of Cannon. Other steps in the same direction have since been taken, and bills passed, having for their object the extirpation of polygamy, but all without immediate and practical effect. It is, however, a question of time merely; polygamy is doomed.

The secession, chiefly because of his opposition to the practice, of Brigham Young’s son, a Christian preacher, and of a large body of other anti-polygamists who claim to be the true Latter-Day Saints, represents not an individual opinion but the deep-rooted conviction of a great party, and the day is not far distant when the Mormons who acknowledge John Taylor as chief prophet must consent to lop off polygamy or cease to exist as a corporate body of the United States.

Already there are not wanting signs of approaching dissolution, of which perhaps the most significant is the conference of the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints," held on 6th April 1883, at Kirtland, Lake county, Ohio. This sect originated in 1851, seven years after the death of Joseph Smith, when several officers of the church met and claimed to have received a revelation from God, directing them to repudiate Brigham Young, as not being the divinely-appointed and legitimate successor of Joseph Smith, and as being the promulgator of such false doctrines and polygamy, Adam-God worship, and the right to shed the blood of apostates.

Nothing of special importance occurred, however, until 1860, when Joseph Smith jun., the eldest son of the founder of the faith, became identified with the Reorganized Church as its president. Since then the seceders have prosecuted missionary work throughout the United, Great Britain, Canada, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Australia, and the Society Islands, until their communicants are said to number over 27,000. Their headquarters are at Plano, Illinois, to which place they removed from Lamoni, Iowa, 1881.

The Reorganized Church holds that the legitimate successor to Joseph Smith was his eldest son, that the allegation that Smith introduced polygamy on the strength of divine revelation was an invention of Brigham Young, that the Utah Church has departed grievously from the faith and practices laid down in the Book of Mormon and subsequent revelations to Joseph Smith, and that the Reorganized Church is the only true and lawful continuation of, and successor to, the original church, and as such is legally entitled to all that church’s property and rights.

And it was to celebrate the decision of the United States Court of Ohio confirming this last claim, and vesting in them the right to the temple consecrated in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836, and for nearly forty years disused owing to litigation, that the Reorganized Church met in that temple on the 6th of April 1883.

Returning to the main body, it may be added that the population of Utah is 147,000, of whom 123,000 are Mormons; but as the saints are scattered over the globe it is difficult to arrive at a just estimate of their complete numerical strength. In Idaho, Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming they have of late years made great progress, and their number in the United States outside of Utah cannot fall much under 27,000. In Europe they have also many adherents, and a careful study, based on recent official statistics, would place their entire number at 213,000.

Government.-- At the head of the body is a president, who possesses supreme authority, supported by two counsellors. These three are supposed to be the successors of Peter, James and John, and constitute what is known as the "first presidency."

Then comes the "patriarch," whose chief duty is to bless and lay on hands, and after him the "twelve apostles," forming a travelling high council, and receiving a salary of $1500 a year each. Of these the president is ex officio one, and endowed with authority equal to the other eleven. Their duties are important. They ordain all other officers, elders, priests, teachers, and deacons, lead all religious meetings, and administer the rites of baptism and sacrament.

Fourth come the seven presidents of the "seventies," each body comprising seventy elders; there are eighty seventies in Utah, each of which has seven presidents, and every seven one president. These seventies make annual reports, and are the missionaries and propagandists of the body.

Fifth come the "high priests," whose chief duty is to officiate in all the offices of the church in the absence of any higher authorities. After them comes the presiding bishop, who superintends the collection of tithes, which amount to $1,100,000 annually.

The church is made up of 23 stakes, each having a president, and is divided into wards, which are subdivided into districts, each of which has a certain number of teachers, a meeting-houses, Sunday school, day school, and dramatic debating, and literary societies.

Doctrine.-- The Mormons no longer claim to be a Christian sect, any more than do the Mohammedans. A system of polytheism has been grafted on the original creed, according to which there are grades among the gods, the place of Supreme Ruler of all being taken by the primeval Adam of Genesis, who is the deity highest in spiritual rank, while Christ, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young also partake of divinity. The business of these deities is the propagation of souls to people bodies begotten on earth, and the sexual relation permeates every portion of the creed as thoroughly as it did that of ancient India or Egypt. The saints on leaving this world are deified, and their glory is in propagation to the number of their wives and children,—hence, the necessity and justification of polygamy, and the practice of having many wives sealed to one saint.

Their distinguishing points of faith are,—religiously, a belief in a continual divine revelation through the inspired medium of the prophet at the head of the church; morally, polygamy, though this is expressly condemned in the Book of Mormon, and was grafted on the original faith of Smith; and, socially, a complete hierarchical organization. They believe in the Bible as supplemented by the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine; in the gift of prophecy, miracles, and casting out devils; in the imminent approach of the end of the world; in their own identity with the apocalyptic saints who shall reign will Christ in a temporal kingdom, either in Missouri or Utah; in the literal resurrection of the body; in absolute liberty of private judgment in religious matters; and in the salvation of man only if he believes in Christ’s atonement, repents, is baptized by immersion by a Christ-appointed apostle, and receives the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost by duly authorized apostles.

Among their minor rules as laid down in A Word of Wisdom, supposed to have been revealed to Joseph Smith, 27th February 1833, are these recommendations:-- that it is not good to drink wine or strong drink, except at the Lord’s Supper (and even then it should be home-made grape-wine) or to use hot drinks or tobacco, -- the former being meant for the washing of the body, and the latter for the healing of bruises and sick cattle; man’s proper food is herbs and fruit, that for beasts and fowls, grain; and, except in winter and in case of famine and severe cold, flesh should not be eaten by man. Infant baptism is also condemned, but the children of the saints who have reached their eight year should be baptized. The deceased, also, can be baptized by proxy, an in this way Washington, Franklin, and others have been vicariously baptized into the church.

See Book of Mormon (1879); Book of Doctrine and Covenants (1876); John Hyde jun., Mormonism, its Leaders and Designs (1857); B. G. Ferris, Utah and the Mormons (1854); N. W. Green, Mormonism (1870); T. B. H. Stenhouse, Rocky Moutains Saints (1873); H. Mayhew, The Mormons; Elder John Jaques, Catechism for Children (1877); John W. Gunnison, Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints (1852); Hepworth Dixon, Spiritual Wives (1868); J. H. Beadle, Life in Utah (1870). (J. FR.)

The above article was written by: Rev. John Fraser, formerly Professor in the University of Chicago.

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