A Brief History of Mormonism
From its beginnings in 1830 with just six members, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has evolved into one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. There are more than 10 million members in more than 160 countries and territories. The faith has drawn increased attention in recent years, with the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, a huge increase in tourism since the 2002 Winter Olympics, the arrest of Fundamentalist LDS leader Warren Jeffs, and the HBO show Big Love.
In the Beginning
The church is considered a uniquely "American" faith, as it was conceived and founded in New York by Joseph Smith, who said God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, came to him in a vision when he was a young boy. Smith said he also saw a resurrected entity named Moroni, who led him to metal plates that were engraved with the religious history of an ancient American civilization. In 1827 Smith translated this record into the Book of Mormon.
Persecution and Settlement in Utah
Not long after the creation of the church, religious persecution forced Smith and his followers to flee New York, and they traveled first to Ohio and then to Missouri before settling in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839. But even here the fledgling faith was ostracized. Smith was killed by a mob in June 1844 in Carthage, Illinois. To escape the oppression, Brigham Young, who ascended to the church's leadership following Smith's death, led a pilgrimage to Utah, the first group arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Here, under Young's guidance, Mormonism quickly grew and flourished.
In keeping with the LDS emphasis on proselytizing, Young laid plans to both colonize Utah and spread the church's word. This work led to the founding of small towns not only throughout the territory but from southern Canada to Mexico. Today Mormons continue that work through its young people, many of whom take time out from college or careers to spend two years on a mission at home or abroad.
Latter-day Saints believe that they are guided by divine revelations received from God by the church president, who is viewed as a modern-day prophet in the same sense as other biblical leaders. The Book of Mormon is viewed as divinely inspired scripture, and is used side-by-side with the Holy Bible. Families are highly valued in the faith, and marriages performed in Mormon temples are thought to continue through eternity.
Though Mormons were originally polygamists, the practice was abolished in order to gain statehood for the territory in the 1890s. Excommunication is the religious consequence for those continuing polygamy. Since 2001 Utah authorities have begun to prosecute polygamists, including Tom Green, who publicized his five-wife family on national talk shows, and Warren Jeffs, who led the cultlike community of Hilldale, Utah (on the Arizona border).
Under Mormon guidance Utah has evolved into a conservative state. Despite most states' belief that church and government should be separate, Utah's governing bodies are overwhelmingly filled by church members who often simultaneously hold leadership positions in their local church units (called wards).
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