The Mormon religion between the 1820s and 1840s

Mormonism is a new religion that emerged in early 19th century United States and has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Officially called the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion is founded on a disillusionment with existing denominations of Christianity.  Joseph Smith is credited as the founder of the religion and it was during his life-time that the religion established itself.  And by the time Brigham Young led the mass migration to Salt Lake City in 1847, the religion has attracted substantial following in the United States.

Mormon faith derives from the Bible, which is one of the holy books.  During the 1840s and 1850s, the other holy books such as the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants came into prominence.  During this time, the Pearl of Great Price was also included in the pantheon of holy books.  Legend has it that in the year 1820, Joseph Smith had had a vision of Jesus Christ and God the Father as he was pondering about the right religious path to follow.  The two personages revealed to Smith were incorporated into the Mormon theology as well, making it a distinguishing feature from Judeo-Christian tradition.  Mormonism also derives from Judaism and draws its scriptures from the Old Testament.  This hybridization of its founding doctrine makes it a unique religion in the context of modern theology. (Deseret Book, 1976)

As expected, the proclamation of this new religion based on the vision seen by Joseph Smith was not accepted by orthodox religious institutions of the time.  Hence non-Mormons set upon a process of persecuting the newly converted Mormon faithful during the 1830s.  The hostility toward Mormons was especially severe in the New England area.  Hence they migrated to Kirtland in Ohio, hopeful of setting up the envisioned New Jerusalem in Missouri.   But even in Kirtland they were not welcomed by mainstream society.  And by 1838, they were coerced out of Kirtland too. (www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/mormon, 2009)  By 1844, Joseph Smith was rounded up by local militia men and executed.  The newly selected leader Brigham Young directed the faithful to Utah Territory, which has remained a safe harbor ever since. Further,

“It would be a migration like that of the Israelites who had been forced to leave Egypt in search of the Promised Land. And although the Mormons got to their promised   land sooner than the Israelites, they encountered great hardship and suffering along the way. The first year of migration took the 16,000 migrants to Winter Quarters by the Missouri Rivers. The second stage of migration took them to the Rocky Mountains and to the Great Salt Lake Basin, which they reached in 1847.” (www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/mormon, 2009)

The hostility to Mormonism during the 1830s and early 1840s is attributed to its critical view of existing Christian denominations.  Joseph Smith perceived the latter as fallen from original lofty standards and felt that a restoration is needed.  But this critical perception of Catholic, Protestant and other orthodoxies within Christianity did not please the authorities in these respective denominations.  This impelled them to persecute Mormons, for they were seen as deviants and apostates.  The political establishment too was disturbed by some of the precepts and allowances of the religion, which undermined democratic and civil order.  For example, during the early days of the propagation of Mormonism, much controversy was raised by its lenient attitude toward polygamy.  But this reactionary aspect of the religion has eventually been discontinued to match changing social mores.  During the early nineteenth century, when black slavery was legally permitted, Mormons resisted this practice and did not keep any slaves.  This undermined and posed a threat to the prevailing culture of slave-ownership among whites, leading them to persecute Mormons. (Quinn, 1998)

During the formative years of the religion from 1820 till the death of Joseph Smith in 1944, Mormonism was largely confined to the United States, although British immigrants formed the bulk of the followers.  But today, Mormonism has an International presence, with followers drawn from all parts of the Western World.   While the follower-ship for the religion has widened, factions and differences have erupted within its clergy, making it a non-monolithic institution.  But during the leadership of Joseph Smith and to a lesser extent during the time of Brigham Young, Mormonism stood for a consolidated set of beliefs that was unanimously assented to by the faithful and the clergy.  Some theologians argue that the factions within the faith has made it more progressive and less fundamentalist.  Mormonism also started out as an exclusively Caucasian religion.  But the progressive pressure from within and without its chambers of authority had made it a more liberal faith today. (Quinn, 1998)  Although a majority of White Mormons who pioneered the journey to Utah and Salt Lake City were not slave-owners, they were not willing to accept blacks into their fold either.  But with the end of the Civil War, when African Americans were legally rid of their bondage, these positive changes began to reflect in Mormonism as well.

References:

Mormons at a glance, (2009-10-02), BBC : Religions, Mormonism, retrieved from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/mormon/ataglance/glance.shtml> on 13th November, 2010

Pioneers, (2009-10-02), BBC : Religions, Mormonism, retrieved from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/mormon/history/pioneers_1.shtml>on 13th November, 2010

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. (1976), Deseret Book.

Quinn, D. Michael, (Summer, 1998),  “Plural Marriage and Mormon Fundamentalism”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, p. 1-68.

Mormons and Jews: Early Mormon Theologies of Israel, (January 1993), Published by Signature Books