Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Mormons: A Truly American Religion

To continue the spirit of criticizing religions other than orthodox Christianity, I wanted to say a few words about the Mormons.

There's a tendency perhaps to dismiss the Mormons as kooks, perhaps in the same breath as one would the Jehovah's Witnesses (persistent front-door evangelism multiplied by discontinuity with Christian orthodoxy doesn't help with popularity in this country), but I find the histories of both to be fascinating tales of religious faith in the unique American context (although I'll only be talking about the Mormons here).

The main reason why I bring them up is because of the wonderful new PBS documentary on the faith airing this week (and available to view in its entirety at the website), of which the first half aired tonight, focusing on the history of the Mormons from Joseph Smith until today.

In many ways, the story of the Mormon faith is one that is essentially American- given the provisions in the First Amendment to the Constitution that permits (just about) any exercise of religion, this country has experienced an immense diversity of religious development in its short two-century existence- not only the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses, but also the more orthodoxly Christian Disciples of Christ, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, as well as some more unorthodox groups that were spawned in England but flourished in America, such as the Quakers and the Shakers.

Aside from the humorous (but pointedly accurate) synopsis of the founding of Mormonism that was provided by South Park, the fact remains that Joseph Smith was a man serious enough about his religious convictions that he was able to convince thousands of people to the truth of his beliefs (which resulted in vicious persecution from orthodox Christian Americans), organized churches in New York state, moved the church several times, from New York to Ohio, from Ohio to Missouri, and from Missouri to Illinois, where the Mormon city of Nauvoo was his greatest achievement. Consider- even Jesus couldn't boast such an accomplishment for his ministry (few religious founders could).

And yet, ironies abound. Although America's constitutional foundation of free exercise helped give rise to Mormonism (among other new Christian variations), this was not a universal value, and it was the fundamental differences between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity that ultimately led to Smith's death and the westward flight of the Mormons to Salt Lake City. But after having found their sanctuary, religious paranoia and a history of persecution led to the horrific Mountain Meadows Massacre. It seems that just like any other system of supernatural belief, when Mormonism was given the opportunity to enforce a theocracy, it did so with relish.

Even to the point of murder.

But that's not unique to Mormons in the slightest, and if anything, it serves to make them even more similar to other mainstream religions. And like other religions, Mormonism seems to satisfy just about any basic quality-of-life criticism that other theists tend to lodge against atheism. Mormons are generally happy, satisfied with their place and purpose in the world, have a set of moral prescriptions, and enjoy a close relationship with their families and other Mormons.

Which is, I think, what I find so interesting about the Mormon experience in this country- it's origin was so recent and relatively well documented, and its tenets are considered so obviously ridiculous, even to orthodox Christians, and yet it has such amazing persuasive power. That the origins of other religions lie so far back in the mists of history serves to make their founding events particularly mysterious, which strangely enough seems more conducive to credulity. And yet despite making demonstrably false claims, the Mormon religion is robust and growing.

I should think that such a situation would tend to give anyone pause about the nature of supernatural belief.

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At 5/08/2007 4:40 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

From wikipedia:

Before a trial could be held, a mob of about 200 armed men, their faces painted black with wet gunpowder, stormed the jail in the late afternoon of 27 June 1844. As the mob was approaching, the jailer became nervous, and informed Smith of the group. In a letter dated 10 July 1844, one of the jailers wrote that Smith, expecting the Nauvoo Legion, said "Don't trouble yourself ... they've come to rescue me."[citation needed]

The Carthage Greys reportedly feigned defense of the jail by firing shots or blanks over the attackers' heads, and some of the Greys reportedly joined the mob, who rushed up the stairs.

The mob fired shots through the door and attempted to push the door open to fire into the room. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face, just to the left of his nose. He cried out, "I am a dead man!" and collapsed. His body received five additional gunshot wounds.

Smith, Taylor, and Richards attempted to defend themselves. Taylor and Richards attempted to use walking sticks in order to deflect the guns as they were thrust inside the cell, from behind the door. Smith used a small pepper-box pistol that Cyrus Wheelock gave him when Wheelock had visited the jail earlier that day. Three of the six barrels misfired. Taylor later stated he had been informed that two assailants had died[5] of wounds received from the pistol; however, witnesses identified three injured men who survived and were later indicted for the murder of Joseph Smith.[6]

John Taylor was shot four or five times and was severely injured, but survived, one shot being stopped by his pocketwatch (the hands stopped at 5:16). Richards escaped unscathed as he was pushed behind the door when it was forced open.

Joseph Smith made his way towards the window. As he prepared to jump down, Richards reported that he was shot twice in the back and a third bullet, fired from a musket on the ground outside, hit him in the chest.

Taylor and Richards' accounts both report that as Smith fell from the window, he called out "Oh Lord, my God!"

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Taylor and Richards' accounts state that Smith was dead when he landed after his fall. One eyewitness, William Daniels, wrote in his 1845 account that Smith was alive when mob members propped his body against a nearby well, assembled a makeshift firing squad, and shot him before fleeing. Daniels' account also states that one man tried to decapitate Smith for a bounty, but was prevented by divine intervention.

Looks like Smith got some people really pissed off. Its so awesome to see how religion brings out the best in people.



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