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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVIII. Popular Bibles

§ 2. Joseph Smith; Contents

Again, when Joseph Smith received in 1827—as the Book affirms—the “Golden Plates” first published in 1830, the New World, particularly west of the Aleghanies, was plunging into various religious extravagances, the wonders which the withdrawing frontier spread before the pioneer were on many a tongue, the origin of the Indians was a live issue, and wiseacres here and there identified them with the lost tribes. It was a day when men still dreamed of and dug for treasures buried by Spaniards or by Kidd. The Masonic-Morgan mystery and the Fox sisters found in Western New York a local habitation and people were still alive there who recalled the “Jerusalem” of Jemima Wilkinson. Mesmerism and the miraculous were of common interest, and here and there community of property and even person was a mooted topic.

In the Book of Mormon we shall look in vain for more than is already found, at least in spirit, in the Scriptures. Its teachings are in general in surprisingly close accord with the outstanding teachings of the Bible. The doctrines both of pre-existence and of perfection are reiterated, if not emphasized. Continuity beyond the grave of relationships begun here is preached. No suggestion is made of polytheism, and polygamy is expressly forbidden. Stress is laid on the second coming of the Lord, which the Millerites, in their white robes by thousands, gathered one day on the banks of the Schuylkill to witness only to be disappointed and chagrined. “No idea was so absurd,” as Schouler, the historian, writing of the time has said, “or so visionary that one might not hope to found a school or sect upon it in this new American society, if only he seemed to be in earnest.”

To understand today the Book of Mormon one must take into account the environment in which it came to light, the type of men responsible for its origin and for the organization created in its name, and the accretions, interpretations, and history soon to follow its publication.

Joseph Smith, sprung of parents reported to be specially responsive to local conditions, said in 1838 that on the night of September 21, 1823, at his home in Manchester, near Canandaigua, New York, the angel Moroni three times appeared to him with a revelation of “Golden Plates” buried on Cumorah Hill, and that on September 22, 1827, in accordance with instructions, he dug up the same, and found them covered with small, mystic characters “of the Reformed Egyptian style”—as Professor Talmage hints. It was a time when people were still talking of the Rosetta Stone, when travelling showmen were exhibiting mummies, and when the Egyptian style was affecting the public taste, even in some housebuilding.

With the aid of a pair of crystal spectacles, his “Urim and Thummim,” which Smith said he found, and with the co-operation of certain kindred spirits, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer by name, whose services were the more valuable because Smith seemed expert neither in reading nor in writing, in 1830 the Book of Mormon was published, and the angel Moroni, according to the narrative, then took away the “Golden Plates.” This is the story the Mormons tell of the origin of their Book, and those will accept its authenticity who without challenge are willing to accept the testimony of the four witnesses supplemented in part by the testimony of eight more, three of whom were Smiths, not including Mrs. Joseph Smith, who opposed the publication of the Book. By those accustomed to consider historical evidence it will perhaps be kept in mind that of only Joseph Smith have we more important knowledge than the mention of their names, and that he was the party most concerned.

From such a questionable beginning Mormonism has grown—as a standard historian admits—into “an extraordinary force.” The latest report, dated May 3, 1921, from the official headquarters in Salt Lake City, states that there are now 900 Latter Day settlements, many of importance, that representatives of the faith have made a world-wide reputation as superior colonizers of good character, that great progress has been made in education, that 1933 of their missionaries are now carrying the message at their own expense to many quarters of the globe, that their book, now published in fifteen languages, has run into “the hundreds of thousands,” and that they are represented in Congress and for their good works have been recognized abroad.

Although no sect in all our history has had so much conscientious, determined, and intelligent opposition, to plead that they are persecuted is no final word with which the Mormons can close controversy. The fault is not altogether with the Book, which undeniably teaches much that is definitely Christian, supplemented, unhappily, by other things that later gave immediate offence and still keep many an honest judgment in suspense.

Joseph Smith could not let well enough alone. After claiming that Moroni, God, Christ, John the Baptist, Elijah, and others in their very person appeared before him to confirm his amazing revelation, he was unwise enough to add to it, in 1843, a revelation, published officially in 1852, of polygamy. This aroused public opinion everywhere against the sect, which, also because of other difficulties, was kept wandering in frequent collision with neighbours and others till the final settlement in Utah.

The story of these successive clashes with “Gentiles” and the Government has significance in interpretation of the Book of Mormon only as it indicates the exercise of a power which the Book itself at least allows and the growing determination of the American people to have done with polygamy. Finally in the constitution of the State of Utah, dated 1896, it was stipulated that “polygamous or plural marriages are forever prohibited.” Charges have since been made in reputable journals that good faith has not been kept, but even Ex-Senator Cannon, sometime high in Latter Day Councils writing a few years ago, says it is the leaders who were guilty, not the Mormon people, whom he describes “as gentle as the Quakers, as staunch as the Jews.”