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Heretic of the week: Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith (1807-1844) was born in Sharon, Vermont; by the time he was 12, his family had joined the migration of New Englanders into upstate New York. Nicknamed the “Burnt-over” district, this area underwent one religious revival after another. It became a breeding ground for groups ranging from Adventism to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Smith’s Mormon Church became by far the most successful.

Smith claimed that Jesus and the Father appeared to him when he was 13 years old. They assured Smith that his sins were forgiven and all the Christians sects he knew of were corrupt. From 1823 Smith experienced a series of visitations by a hitherto unknown angel, Moroni, who revealed the location of golden tablets, upon which were written the history of a pre-Columbian American civilisation established by refugee Hebrews – who were then visited by Christ subsequent to His Crucifixion. There were also included a pair of magic spectacles that allowed Smith to read the “Reformed Egyptian” in which the records were written. Rendered in English, these became the Book of Mormon. With occasional return visits by various beings, including Elijah, Peter, James, John, and Archangel Michael (Adam in Mormon lore), Smith worked out the dogmas of what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After building the first Mormon temple in Kirtland, Ohio, Smith began a peripatetic career that led him to Nauvoo, Illinois. There, his control of the city, practice of polygamy and suppression of newspaper criticism of himself sparked the lethal violence that claimed Smith’s life.

Mormonism is probably the most successful US-based religion. There were in 2012 about 14.8 million Mormons, of whom 57 per cent lived abroad. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Mormons erect into a doctrine what is merely an unconscious attitude on the part of many Americans: that they are the successors of the Children of Israel.