For Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saint movement, September 22 was a noteworthy date. From 1823 to 1826, he allegedly met with an angel named Moroni near his home in Manchester, New York, each year on that day. When the next September 22 rolled around in 1827, exactly 190 years ago today, Smith retrieved the golden plates on which was inscribed the Book of Mormon. According to Smith’s translation from an ancient language, the plates told the story of two civilizations that inhabited the Americas around and before 600 BC.
Joseph Smith’s profound legacy is one of religious fervor, persecution, and mystery. Smith, as a self-proclaimed prophet, began a movement that now claims a global membership of around 16 million people. According to the LDS Church itself, since 1996, there have been more Mormons living outside the U.S. than U.S. members.
Despite the modern Mormon practice of proselytism, the religious group spent many years in Utah in relative isolation. The evolving American sentiment toward Latter-day Saints throughout the 20th century can be seen in the archives of The Saturday Evening Post.
In 1905, a harsh critique of Mormon ambitions (“The Mormon System” by H.C. Williams) claimed the tradition had “no genesis save the cataleptic or hysterical visions of Smith and the Prophets who succeeded him.” While skeptical of the Mormon faith, Williams was more anxious about the perceived political and economic threat that the large Utah group posed as they began to integrate with mainstream society: “As the assumption of inspiration is the cornerstone of the system, and belief in it is sincere in the minds of 80 percent of the Mormon population, democratic ideals and practice are reduced to nothingness, and assertions that Utah is governed by American political institutions are mere sham.” The report came only nine years after Utah was admitted into the U.S. and only one year after Mormon leader Joseph F. Smith (nephew of the founder) publicly announced a ban on plural marriages in the church.
In 1922, Joseph Hergesheimer chronicled the story of the Mormons in his Post series, “The Magnetic West.” Hergesheimer’s history covers the Latter-day Saints from Smith’s revelations to the group’s westward journeys. The article is far less inflammatory than Williams’ 1905 piece; Hergesheimer remains lukewarm toward the LDS Church while considering their circumstances:
The Mormon migration had not been from choice, they had not voluntarily left an ungodly world for the pure but sterile desert. No, the truth was that, until they settled beside the Great Salt Lake, they had been driven from place to place, from state to state. This, they proclaimed, was the result of religious persecution; and the murder, at Carthage, of the Smiths, gave them that claim to martyrdom inseparable from beginning religions. The Latter-Day Saints laid their unpopularity to persecution; but the various regions, the people, that knew them for various but short periods, denying this, asserted that there were civic and political and social reasons for the forced removals. The Republicans, it seemed, would welcome the Church cordially, and vote it against the Democrats; and, in turn, the Democrats, generally speaking, would greet it as a barrier opposed to inordinate Republican ambitions; but in the end both national parties invariably united against the saints. (December 9, 1922)
Throughout the 20th century, Mormonism would side invariably with the Republican party. The Mormon values of family, abstinence, and work ethic were largely revered in the onslaught of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. In 1950, the Post published “Good Mormons Don’t Go Broke,” a profile of the Mormon owner of the Hot Shoppes franchise. And in 1980 came “The Mormons: Healthy in Body and Soul,” which asked, “Could it be that family stability, physical fitness, abstinence, hard work, and self-reliance are not outmoded virtues after all?”
Over the course of a century, the Latter-day Saints had found national admiration where there used to be enmity. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for president as the Republican nominee was a “major ‘Mormon Moment’ in America” according to Deseret News. The Mormon story is a purely American one, with drama, scandal, and ultimately, prosperity. Joseph Smith has been named among the most influential and significant Americans by both The Atlantic and Smithsonian magazine, and his movement permanently shaped the American West in its formative years.
Dr. Richard Lyman Bushman, a practicing Mormon and professor of history at Columbia University, has authored several acclaimed texts on Joseph Smith and Mormonism that seek to understand how the 19th-century treasure hunter began a worldwide religion. In the PBS documentary The American Prophet, Bushman gives a possible explanation for Smith’s potential for influence: “Joseph said I am another one of those prophets. … Joseph said we will build the new Jerusalem. In a Bible culture, to use those powerful Bible words and make them literal enabled the people of his time not just to read the Bible, but to live it.” If Smith was able to launch a movement by appealing to his constituents’ desire for immersive faith, the Latter-day Saints expressed a steadfast patience over decades to regain the approval of mainstream America.