If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. -Joseph Smith
Three of the great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, began with miraculous events: the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the resurrection of Christ, the visions of Muhammad. Mormons, like all Christians, base their faith on the Old and New Testament miracles, but they also believe that God entered human affairs in the nineteenth century. They believe that divine events occurred less than two centuries ago that renewed divine authority and religious devotion in a Christianity that had lost some of its essential powers. Joseph Smith saw visions as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus had centuries before, making him the "prophet" of a new dispensation of the gospel.
Smith's religious experiences began in 1820 in a time of religious revival in upstate New York. Confused by the cacophony of preaching, he wondered which church to join. A minimally educated, fourteen-year-old farm boy, he found in James 1:5 KJV encouragement to pray for knowledge. Kneeling in the woods near his father's farm, Smith experienced "thick darkness," then a pillar of light around "two Personages" of great brightness. Smith said one person introduced the other: "This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him." Smith was told that no church was correct, that they were "all corrupt." They had a "form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." Smith was ridiculed when he described his vision, but he clung to his story. "I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true." Stung by early ridicule, Smith said little about his visionary experiences.
Several years before his death, he published an account of this early vision. By 1900, when polygamy receded as the sect's defining doctrine, Smith's early experience received new emphasis, becoming the First Vision, defining Mormons against standard Protestantism. Latter-day Saint children learn this central story of the Church. Missionaries tell "The Joseph Smith Story" using Smith's words published as Scripture in The Pearl of Great Price. Congregations sing "Oh, How Lovely Was the Morning," a hymn describing the day when the heavens parted. For Latter-day Saints, the First Vision indicates God's interest in man. If He answered the prayer of a young farm boy, He can speak to anyone.
Three years later, Smith had another vision. During an evening prayer, a bright light filled the room, and a messenger who said he was an angel of God appeared. The angel reported that the second coming of the Messiah was near and that Smith would help in bringing about some of God's purposes in the last days. The angel described historical records on gold plates written by ancient inhabitants of America buried in a hill near Smith's home. He was directed to the records, brought them home, showed them to eleven witnesses, "translate[d]" the story "by the gift and power of God," and published it as the Book of Mormon. Smith described the gold plates as six inches wide and eight inches long, with individual plates "not quite so thick as common tin." The plates were bound into a six-inch volume by three large rings. Smith said they were "beautifully engraved" with small Egyptian characters. The book showed "many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving." Smith published the Book of Mormon in March 1830 and on April 6 of that year organized a church.
A cornerstone of Mormon beliefs is that Christianity, as originally established by Jesus Christ and his immediate followers, had gone through an apostasy in which the original authority-the priesthood-was lost. Mormons have taught that Protestant reforms, the American Revolution, and the rise of democracy allowing freedom of religion, all prepared the world for the reintroduction of Christ's gospel. Smith, whose First Vision told him that no current churches were true, claimed to have restored the original Christianity by divine authority. Mormons call this "the restoration," or the "restoration of all things," referred to by Peter in Acts 3:20-21 KJV. When Mormons testify to their belief that "the Church is true," they mean that Joseph Smith restored the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based on Smith's story and the miracles associated with it. Belief in the validity of the Book of Mormon as a historical document has been and continues to be a test of faith. Converts are told to read the book and pray for confirmation that it comes from God. Belief that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the basis of a "testimony," a personal statement of conviction and conversion. Observers, then and later, thought Smith was an imposter, a fraud, and a charlatan. Still, his writings suggest that he believed what he taught others, and he suffered a great deal for his beliefs. Joseph Smith lived only fourteen years after he organized the Church in April 1830. During that time, his primary goal was to establish the City of Zion, sometimes called the New Jerusalem. He designated a small site in Independence, Missouri, as this promised land, a place for a city and the construction of a temple. He sent out missionaries in search of converts to gather to this city, which would be a place of refuge from the calamities of the last days before the Second Coming. He laid out a plat for 15,000 to 20,000 people. When that city filled, another was to be laid out. Hundreds of converted Mormons assembled, frightening the local residents who feared the government would be hijacked by religious fanatics. The citizens forced out the Mormons, compelling Smith to find a new "Zion." He established one in Ohio and another in Far West, Missouri, with the same result: Numbers led to expulsion. Finally at Nauvoo, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, he established a Mormon city of 10,000 converts drawn from the United States and England.
Nauvoo came to the same painful end as the previous Zions. Mormons in Nauvoo who had turned against Smith published a newspaper condemning him. Fearing the paper would ignite another round of persecution, Smith declared the copy libelous and had the press destroyed and the type scattered. Arrested on the charge of riot and, later, treason, Smith was awaiting trial in nearby Carthage, Illinois, when a mob stormed the jail and shot Smith and his brother Hyrum dead. Out of the various claimants who stepped forward to lead the Church, Brigham Young emerged to lead the main body on a 1,300-mile trek to the Salt Lake Valley, the next "Zion." To Mormons, "Zion" refers both to the "pure in heart" who follow God and to the place where they gather. Mormons attempted to create a Zion in each settlement, from Independence to Salt Lake City. This Zion identity is why Mormons consider themselves to be the restored Israel, seeing themselves akin to the original Jewish people and Christian church. Remnants of Old Testament lore abound. Patriarchal blessings, of the sort that Isaac bestowed on Jacob and Esau, are given to Saints as direction for their lives. Mormons invoke "Redeemer of Israel" in song, calling themselves "children of Zion," and singing "How long we have wandered / As strangers in sin, / And cried in the desert for thee! / Our foes have rejoiced / When our sorrows they've seen, / But Israel will shortly be free." Even the practice of polygamy comes from this connection to Abraham. Polygamists believed they were doing the "works of Abraham." Mormons feel close to Jews and more recently to Muslims, their fellow Israelites. They believe that Zion, the New Jerusalem, will be built in America. The themes of Zion, Israel, and gathering justify and explain their persecuted wanderings.