Joseph Smith: The Restorer of the True Gospel?
Mormonism originates solely and totally from the early nineteenth-century visions and revelations of Joseph Smith, the first President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this most fundamental fact, Latter-day Saints present no argument or dispute. As the 10th Mormon President/Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, affirms with prophetic conviction: “Mormonism must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. Put simply, without Joseph Smith, there would be no such faith known as Mormonism today.”
Mormons do not simply admire Joseph Smith as Christians respect and honor Billy Graham; they have elevated him to the biblical status of Abraham, Moses, apostle Peter, and apostle Paul. Latter-day Saints exalt Joseph Smith to a status of greatness that is hard for Christians to imagine. Latter-day Saints believe Smith was a preexistent spirit-man who ranked with Adam and Abraham.
Mormons believe that Smith, as second only to Jesus Christ, has done more for the salvation of men in this world than any other man who has ever lived on earth. In their eyes, Joseph Smith is greater than any Old Testament prophet or New Testament apostle, including Moses, Abraham, Paul, and John. Although Mormons do not worship Joseph Smith, they do acclaim his status of preexistent greatness and latter-day calling to a level of superiority that is unprecedented in the history of Christianity.
THE EARLY YEARS OF JOSEPH SMITH (1805-1820)
Early Mormon history unfolded in the cold winters of the northeastern United States, in such places as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western New York. In Sharon, Vermont, Joseph Smith Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, to the poor farming family of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith.
The Smith family moved numerous times during Joseph’s early teen years, seeking good farmland and a stable living. From 1811 to 1816, they seemed to be constantly on the move, looking for a place they could call home. In 1816, Joseph Smith Sr. once again packed up his eight children and moved his family to neighboring Palmyra and Manchester Townships located in Ontario County, New York, where they purchased 100 acres of land and built a small log home. In 1820, in a wooded grove near this log home, Mormonism officially began with Joseph’s Smith’s so-called “First Vision” experience at the very young age of 14.
America’s Second Great Awakening
In the early 1800s, the western frontier region of New York State experienced zealous Christian revivals and camp meetings common to America’s Second Great Awakening. New York earned its reputation of being a “burned-over religious district” as the result of out-of-control spiritual wildfires. It was a region swarming with itinerant flamboyant preachers. There were many wild-eyed preachers in western New York, including Lorenzo Dow (nicknamed “Crazy Dow”), after whom Brigham Young’s older brother was named, and unwashed evangelist Isaac Bullard, who ran around draped in bearskin yelling his message of free love. And it was here that Charles Finney began his evangelistic preaching crusades in 1824 and 1825.
Along with mass personal conversions, ecstatic experiences of encountering God, and transcendent visions, another general characteristic of America’s Second Great Awakening was the desire by many Christian groups to break away from historical, creed-centered Christianity in the pursuit of “restoring” the pure practice of the New Testament Church. Their efforts were often fueled by homespun theology and end-time predictions of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and his millennial reign.
Early Mormonism reflected many of the common Christian trends of the times: having an authoritarian prophetic leader and being noncreedal, staunchly Arminian, fervently restorationist, evangelistically driven, end-time-focused, and characterized by isolated communal living.
Which Christian Church Is True?
Unfortunately, denominational rivalries and theological debates were rabid in western New York, especially among the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. As an impressionable, immature boy, Joseph Smith struggled deeply with the question concerning what church denomination was really the true one. During this troubled season, he wrote that he was determined to act on the familiar Bible passage of James 1:5: “If any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”