The Church of Christ, as it was originally called, was established on 6 April 1830. In later years, Smith would claim that the biblical figure John the Baptist had appeared and ordained him to the "Aaronic priesthood" in 1829, but this was another story that he appears to have come up with ex post facto. In any event, Smith didn't stop to pause for breath. He quickly started work on a new scripture called the Book of Moses, which became the first part of a new "translation" of the Bible - actually an edited and somewhat expanded version of the King James translation.
In spite of local opposition, Smith began to win converts. In 1831, the fledgling Mormon community migrated from New York State to Kirtland, Ohio, in preparation for the end of the world. The early converts in Ohio seem to have been even more addicted to the miraculous and the supernatural than the New Yorkers. Smith went on to designate Jackson County, Missouri as a sacred territory which would play a pivotal role in the end times. Some of his followers duly settled there. But by this time Smith was making serious enemies. In 1832, he was tarred and feathered, and his Missouri settlers encountered ongoing problems with mob violence.
In the early 1830s, Mormon theology began to move decisively away from its orthodox Protestant origins into something quite new and different. The changes can be summarised as follows:
- The very month that the Book of Mormon was published, Smith rejected the idea of eternal punishment (a concept which appears in the BoM, and which therefore had to be reinterpreted).
- He began to refer to a restored "priesthood" - a taboo concept in his native Protestantism due to its association with the Roman Catholic Church.
- In 1832, we find the first expression of the ideas of a three-tiered heaven and a relatively small and unimportant hell. These ideas, which differ considerably from standard Christian teachings, remain characteristic of LDS doctrine to this day. With them went what became the classic Mormon concept of exaltation - the theologically delicate idea that human beings can not merely receive salvation from God but can become gods themselves.
- In 1835, a travelling showman arrived in Kirtland with an exhibition of Egyptian mummies and papyri. Smith announced that one of the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and another those of the Biblical patriarch Joseph. He set to work on the first papyrus, and eventually produced the Book of Abraham, another scriptural translation which later found its way into the LDS canon.
By the latter part of the 1830s, Smith was starting to face serious internal opposition. He sponsored a bank which went bust, causing widespread economic hardship. More ominously, rumours were afoot that he was practising polygamy. It is believed that Smith took his first "plural wife", Fanny Alger, in the early 1830s (critics note that she was only a teenager at the time). His first wife, Emma, was never entirely happy about this sort of thing, and the problems would only become worse as time went by.
Out in Missouri, things were fractious. The Mormon settlers were driven out in 1833, and an expedition to reinstate them (known as Zion's Camp) met with failure. Nevertheless, by 1836, the Missouri Mormons appeared to have come to a settlement with the other Missourians - but the truce was not to last. The conflict came to a head in the "Mormon War" of 1838, in the course of which Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that the Mormons by "exterminated" from his state. This Hitlerian language fed into a persecution complex which the Mormon Church has never quite shaken off.
On a visit to Missouri in 1838, Smith claimed to have identified a site in Daviess County where Adam himself once dwelt. He called it Adam-ondi-Ahman and decided to build a temple there - but it was not to be. The Mormon War resulted in Smith being thrown into jail. He escaped and ended up in Illinois, where he founded a new settlement called Nauvoo, Hebrew for "Beautiful Place". With the help of a politically connected assistant, he obtained a city charter from the state authorities in December 1840. By this time, missionary work was bringing converts into the church from as far away as Liverpool.
The revelations kept on coming as Smith elaborated his idiosyncratic theology. In 1841, he announced that God himself was an anthropomorphic being, an exalted man: "there is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones". Nor did God create anything from nothing: "this earth was organized or formed out of other planets which were broken up and remodelled and made into the one on which we live". Smith also instituted the key Mormon doctrine of baptism of the dead, which continues to drive Mormon genealogical research today.
Three of the most decisive developments in Mormon theology unfolded in a relatively short space of time in the spring of 1842. First, the Book of Abraham was finally published. It is a rather eccentric text, dealing with a number of themes which are known to have interested Smith, including priesthood, astronomical lore, multiple gods and the pre-mortal existence of humankind. What Smith was not to know was that Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered a few years earlier by the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion. Smith's source texts turned out to be standard funerary documents filled with the pagan religion of ancient Egypt. Within a few years, Egyptologists were confidently pronouncing his translation to be a forgery, and matters only got worse when the original papyri were finally relocated in 1967 and examined fully by scholars. The attempts of Mormon academics and apologists to explain away the Book of Abraham are a masterclass in the art of special pleading. The current favoured theory is that the papyri merely acted as a catalyst for Smith to receive a revelation from God of an entirely different text.
Second, Smith created the temple "endowment", a sacred and secret ceremony which continues to be performed within Mormon temples today. Mormon temple worship did not begin in Nauvoo. A temple had been built in Kirtland, and in early 1836 a remarkable series of ceremonies were held there in which Smith and his followers were anointed with oil, saw visions and received the "endowment" of the Holy Spirit. However, things only really got going in Nauvoo. Essentially, Smith got involved with the Freemasons, immediately fell in love with the ceremonies, and declared that they were a corrupted version of an authentic divine liturgy which he then proceeded to restore. The new, quasi-Masonic "endowment" presented a live drama of the creation of the world. These days, they use video versions, and various parts of the ceremony have been edited over the years, but the core of the ceremony remains unchanged.
Third, Smith's secret polygamous marriages entered a new phase. He started to marry with wild abandon, in some cases taking other men's current wives as his brides. The LDS scholar Richard Bushman estimates that he married 3 women in 1841, 11 in 1842 and 17 in 1843. In private, he explained himself by claiming that an angel had threatened to kill him if he didn't. Devout Mormons have a hard time explaining this stuff. Bushman accepts that at least some of the marriages were consummated, but portrays them as a divinely sanctioned exercise in patriarchal family building: he rather optimistically suggests that Smith "did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin".
In hindsight, 1842 was also the beginning of the end. Smith publicly denied that he was involved in polygamy, but rumours continued to mount - as did legal problems, some of them dating back to the Mormon War. A former counsellor of his, a shady character called John Bennett, sought to stir up public feeling against him.
Yet Smith became bolder and more ambitious. He decided to run for President of the United States in the 1844 election. He set up the Council of Fifty, a shadowy body which appears to have had apocalyptic and theocratic aspirations; in April 1844, the Council acclaimed him "Prophet, Priest and King". There were reports that he was conspiring with the local Indian tribes to lead an insurrection. There is even some enigmatic evidence that he had come to believe that he was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit.
Also in April 1844, Smith preached a remarkable sermon at the funeral of one of his followers, a man by the name of King Follett. This was, in effect, his last theological testament to the world. The sermon gave a classic exposition of his theology of exaltation and human godhood:
First, God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heaven, is a man like one of you. That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today and you were to see the great God who holds this world in its orbit and upholds all things by his power, you would see him in the image and very form of a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion and image of God. He received instruction from and walked, talked, and conversed with him as one man talks and communes with another....
We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. That he was not is an idea incomprehensible to some. But it is the simple and first principle of the gospel - to know for a certainty the character of God, that we may converse with him as one man with another....
Here, then, is eternal life - to know the only wise and true God. And you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves - to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done - by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.This sort of thing has impressed even non-Mormons - notably the secular Jewish literary critic Harold Bloom - with the daring sweeps of its imagination. The ideas articulated by Smith in the King Follett sermon may not have been entirely original, however. Scholars have noted that they resemble ideas found in esoteric Judaism, and point out that Smith had become friends with a Jew called Alexander Neibaur who had an interest in kabbalistic philosophy.
Wherever Smith's ideas came from, not everyone was impressed with them. His followers mostly came from conventional Protestant backgrounds, and they were not disposed to react well to rumours of polygamy and sermons about multiple gods. Some of Smith's critics denounced him as a fallen prophet and set up a breakaway church. Legal troubles continued to dog him. Matters came to a head on 7 June 1844, when the rebels published a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. The city council, which was dominated by Smith loyalists, ordered the press destroyed: it represented, they claimed, an incitement to mob violence. This was, literally, a fatal mistake. Smith had finally gone too far. He had trampled on the sacrosanct American doctrine of freedom of the press. By 25 June, he was in jail. Two days later, the jailhouse was attacked by vigilantes. At the age of 39, Joseph Smith Jr, God's prophet in these latter days, was shot dead. His last act was to give the Masonic sign of distress from his cell window.
It is a key characteristic of religions to identify tangible things such as texts, places, people and rituals as contact-points with the Divine - hierophanies, as they have been called. Smith wandered around the early United States laying down hierophanies with wild abandon. I'm a prophet - I've found a new Bible - here's a revelation from God - look, this is a manuscript written by Abraham - that's where Adam and Eve lived - hey, I've just come up with this cool new ceremony to get us into heaven.... He couldn't even get laid without claiming that it was a divine ordinance. Smith's Mormonism was at once both naive and extravagant, the sort of religion that you'd expect a farm boy to come up with if he was making it up as he went along - although this may understate his debt to established traditions of unorthodoxy such as folk-magic, kabbalah and Freemasonry.
The obvious conclusion is that Smith's Mormonism was a rather strange fraud - and indeed, anyone who isn't a Mormon must, inevitably and by definition, regard Smith as an imposter and a false prophet. This judgement must be fleshed out somewhat, however. Smith may have been a scoundrel, but it would not be accurate to describe him as an irreligious man whose motives were cold and rational. On the contrary, like most successful cult leaders, he seems to have believed in his own propaganda. He was both fraudster and fantasist. It has been suggested that he suffered from narcissistic personality disorder - a plausible suggestion, particularly in view of his wild megalomania towards the end - but in any event Smith took to being a prophet like a duck to water. He was fascinated by the supernatural and by the processes of revelation and translation. His private diary contains apparently sincere expressions of Christian piety. He kept on spouting new scriptures and coming up with new rituals and doctrines long after the point at which it would have been more prudent to rein things in. Maybe he really did think that he was the Holy Spirit.
One question that is bound to strike the reader is how a small doomsday cult led by a charismatic prophet ended up as an utterly respectable, profoundly conservative hierarchical church located in America's most reliably Republican state. The group that threw down the most radical challenge to traditional ideas of marriage in American history has ended up leading the fight to uphold those very same ideas against campaigners for gay equality. But all that is a story for another time.