In the minds of many, perhaps of the majority of people, the scene of the "Mormon" drama is laid almost entirely in Utah; indeed, the terms "Mormon question" and "Utah question" have been often used interchangeably. True it is, that the development of "Mormonism" is closely associated with the history of the long-time Territory and present State of Utah; but the origin of the system must be sought in regions far distant from the present gathering-place of the Latter-day Saints, and at a period antedating the acquisition of Utah as a part of our national domain.
The term "origin" is here used in its commonest application--that of the first stages apparent to ordinary observation--the visible birth of the system. But a long, long period of preparation had led to this physical coming forth of the "Mormon" religion, a period marked by a multitude of historical events, some of them preceding by centuries the earthly beginning of this modern system of prophetic trust. The "Mormon" people regard the establishment of their Church as the culmination of a great series of notable events. To them it is the result of causes unnumbered that have operated through ages of human history, and they see in it the cause of many developments yet to appear. This to them establishes an intimate relationship between the events of their own history and the prophecies of ancient times.
In reading the earliest pages of "Mormon" history, we are introduced to a man whose name will ever be prominent in the story of the Church--the founder of the organization by common usage of the term, the head of the system as an earthly establishment--one who is accepted by the Church as an ambassador specially commissioned of God to be the first revelator of the latter-day dispensation. This man is Joseph Smith, commonly known as the "Mormon" prophet. Rarely indeed does history present an organization, religious, social, or political, in which an individual holds as conspicuous and in all ways as important a place as does this man in the development of "Mormonism." The earnest investigator, the sincere truth-seeker, can ignore neither the man nor his work; for the Church under consideration has risen from the testimony solemnly set forth and the startling declarations made by this person, who, at the time of his earliest announcements, was a farmer's boy in the first half of his teens. If his claims to ordination under the hands of divinely commissioned messengers be fallacious, forming as they form the foundation of the Church organization, the superstructure cannot stand; if, on the other hand, such declarations be true, there is little cause to wonder at the phenomenally rapid rise and the surprising stability of the edifice so begun.
Joseph Smith was born at Sharon, Vermont, in December, 1805. He was the son of industrious parents, who possessed strong religious tendencies and tolerant natures. For generations his ancestors had been laborers, by occupation tillers of the soil; and though comfortable circumstances had generally been their lot, reverses and losses in the father's house had brought the family to poverty; so that from his earliest days the lad Joseph was made acquainted with the pleasures and pains of hard work. He is described as having been more than ordinarily studious for his years; and when that powerful wave of religious agitation and sectarian revival which characterized the first quarter of the last century, reached the home of the Smiths, Joseph with others of the family was profoundly affected. The household became somewhat divided on the subject of religion, and some of the members identified themselves with the more popular sects; but Joseph, while favorably impressed by the Methodists in comparison with others, confesses that his mind was sorely troubled over the contemplation of the strife and tumult existing among the religious bodies; and he hesitated. He tried in vain to solve the mystery presented to him in the warring factions of what professed to be the Church of Christ. Surely, thought he, these several churches, opposed as they are to one another on what appear to be the vital points of religion, cannot all be right. While puzzling over this anomaly he chanced upon this verse in the epistle of St. James:
"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
In common with so many others, the earnest youth found here within the scriptures, admonition and counsel as directly applicable to his case and circumstances as if the lines had been addressed to him by name. A brief period of hesitation, in which he shrank from the thought that a mortal like himself, weak, youthful, and unlearned, should approach the Creator with a personal request, was followed by a humble and contrite resolution to act upon the counsel of the ancient apostle. The result, to which he bore solemn record (testifying at first with the simplicity and enthusiasm of youth, afterward confirming the declaration with manhood's increasing powers, and at last voluntarily sealing the testimony with his life's blood,) proved most startling to the sectarian world--a world in which according to popular belief no new revelation of truth was possible. It is a surprising fact that while growth, progress, advancement, development of known truths and the acquisition of new ones, characterize every living science, the sectarian world has declared that nothing new must be expected as direct revelation from God.
The testimony of this lad is, that in response to his supplication, drawn forth by the admonition of an inspired apostle, he received a divine ministration; heavenly beings manifested themselves to him--two, clothed in purity, and alike in form and feature. Pointing to the other, one said, "This is my beloved Son, hear Him." In answer to the lad's prayer, the heavenly personage so designated informed Joseph that the Spirit of God dwelt not with warring sects, which, while professing a form of godliness, denied the power thereof, and that he should join none of them. Overjoyed at the glorious manifestation thus granted unto him, the boy prophet could not withhold from relatives and acquaintances tidings of the heavenly vision. From the ministers, who had been so energetic in their efforts to convert the boy, he received, to his surprise, abuse and ridicule. "Visions and manifestations from God," said they, "are of the past, and all such things ceased with the apostles of old; the canon of scripture is full; religion has reached its perfection in plan, and, unlike all other systems contrived or accepted by human kind, is incapable of development or growth. It is true God lives, but He cares not for His children of modern times as He did for those of ancient days; He has shut Himself away from the people, closed the windows of heaven, and has suspended all direct communication with the people of earth."
The persecution thus originating with those who called themselves ministers of the gospel of Christ spread throughout the community; and the sects that before could not agree together nor abide in peace, became as one in their efforts to oppose the youth who thus testified of facts, which though vehemently denounced, produced an effect that alarmed them the more. And such a spectacle has ofttimes presented itself before the world--men who cannot tolerate one another in peace swear fidelity and mutual support in strife with a common opponent. The importance of this alleged revelation from the heavens to the earth is such as to demand attentive consideration. If a fact, it is a full contradiction of the vague theories that had been increasing and accumulating for centuries, denying personality and parts to Deity.
In 1820, there lived one person who knew that the word of the Creator, "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness," had a meaning more than in metaphor. Joseph Smith, the youthful prophet and revelator of the nineteenth century, knew that the Eternal Father and the well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, were in form and stature like unto perfect men; and that the human family was in very truth of divine origin. But this wonderful vision was not the only manifestation of heavenly power and personality made to the young man, nor the only incident of the kind destined to bring upon him the fury of persecution. Sometime after this visitation, which constituted him a living witness of God unto men, and which demonstrated the great fact that humanity is the child of Deity, he was visited by an immortal personage who announced himself as Moroni, a messenger sent from the presence of God. The celestial visitor stated that through Joseph as the earthly agent the Lord would accomplish a great work, and that the boy would come to be known by good and evil repute amongst all nations. The angel then announced that an ancient record, engraven on plates of gold, lay hidden in a hill near by, which record gave a history of the nations that had of old inhabited the American continent, and an account of the Savior's ministrations among them. He further explained that with the plates were two sacred stones, known as Urim and Thummim, by the use of which the Lord would bring forth a translation of the ancient record. Joseph further testifies that he was told that if he remained faithful to his trust and the confidence reposed in him, he would some day receive the record into his keeping, and be commissioned and empowered to translate it. In due time these promises were literally fulfilled, and the modern version of these ancient writings was given to the world.
The record proved to be an account of certain colonies of immigrants to this hemisphere from the east, who came several centuries before the Christian era. The principal company was led by one Lehi, described as a personage of some importance and wealth, who had formerly lived at Jerusalem in the reign of Zedekiah, and who left his eastern home about 600 B.C. The book tells of the journeyings across the water in vessels constructed according to revealed plan, of the peoples' landing on the western shores of South America probably somewhere in Chile, of their prosperity and rapid growth amid the bounteous elements of the new world, of the increase of pride and consequent dissension accompanying the accumulation of material wealth, and of the division of the people into factions which became later two great nations at enmity with one another. One part following Nephi, the youngest and most gifted son of Lehi, designated themselves Nephites; the other faction, led by Laman, the elder and wicked brother of Nephi, were known as Lamanites.
The Nephites lived in cities, some of which attained great size and were distinguished by great architectural beauty. Continually advancing northward, these people in time occupied the greater part of the valleys of the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Magdalena. During the thousand years covered by the Nephite record, the people crossed the Isthmus of Panama, which is graphically described as a neck of land but a day's journey from sea to sea, and successively occupied extensive tracts in what is now Mexico, the valley of the Mississippi, and the Eastern States. It is not to be supposed that these vast regions were all populated at any one time by the Nephites; the people were continually moving to escape the depredations of their hereditary foes, the Lamanites; and they abandoned in turn all their cities established along the course of migration. The unprejudiced student sees in the discoveries of the ancient and now forest-covered cities of Mexico, Central America, Yucatan, and the northern regions of South America, collateral testimony having a bearing upon this history.
Before their more powerful foes, the Nephites dwindled and fled; until about the year 400 A.D. they were entirely annihilated after a series of decisive battles, the last of which was fought near the very hill, called Cumorah, in the State of New York, where the hidden record was subsequently revealed to Joseph Smith.
The Lamanites led a roving, aggressive life; kept few or no records, and soon lost the art of history writing. They lived on the results of the chase and by plunder, degenerating in habit until they became typical progenitors of the dark-skinned race, afterward discovered by Columbus and named American Indians.
The last writer in the ancient record, and the one who hid away the plates in the hill Cumorah, was Moroni--the same personage who appeared as a resurrected being in the nineteenth century, a divinely appointed messenger sent to reveal the depository of the sacred documents; but the greater part of the plates since translated had been engraved by the father of Moroni, the Nephite prophet Mormon. This man, at once warrior, prophet and historian, had made a transcript and compilation of the heterogeneous records that had accumulated during the troubled history of the Nephite nation; this compilation was named on the plates "The Book of Mormon," which name has been given to the modern translation--a work that has already made its way over most of the civilized world. The translation and publication of the Book of Mormon were marked by many scenes of trouble and contention, but success attended the undertaking, and the first edition of the work appeared in print in 1830.
The question, "What is the Book of Mormon?"--a very pertinent one on the part of every earnest student and investigator of this phase of American history--has been partly answered already. The work has been derisively called the "Mormon Bible," a name that carries with it the misrepresentation that in the faith of this people the book takes the place of the scriptural volume which is universally accepted by Christian sects. No designation could be more misleading, and in every way more untruthful. The Latter-day Saints have but one "Bible" and that the Holy Bible of Christendom. They place it foremost amongst the standard works of the Church; they accept its admonitions and its doctrines, and accord thereto a literal significance; it is to them, and ever has been, the word of God, a compilation made by human agency of works by various inspired writers; they accept its teachings in fulness, modifying the meaning in no wise, except in the rare cases of undoubted mistranslation, concerning which Biblical scholars of all faiths differ and criticize; and even in such cases their reverence for the sacred letter renders them even more conservative than the majority of Bible commentators and critics in placing free construction upon the text. The historical part of the Jewish scriptures tells of the divine dealings with the people of the eastern hemisphere; the Book of Mormon recounts the mercies and judgments of God, the inspired teachings of His prophets, the rise and fall of His people as organized communities on the western continent.
The Latter-day Saints believe the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to have been foretold in the Bible, as its destiny is prophesied of within its own lids; it is to the people the true "stick of Ephraim" which Ezekiel declared should become one with the "stick of Judah"--or the Bible. The people challenge the most critical comparison between this record of the west and the Holy Scriptures of the east, feeling confident that no discrepancy exists in letter or spirit. As to the original characters in which the record was engraved, copies were shown to learned linguists of the day and pronounced by them as closely resembling the Reformed Egyptian writing.
Let us revert, however, to the facts of history concerning this new scripture, and the reception accorded the printed volume.
The Book of Mormon was before the world; the Church circulated the work as freely as possible. The true account of its origin was rejected by the general public, who thus, assumed the responsibility of explaining in some plausible way the source of the record. Among the many false theories propounded, perhaps the most famous is the so-called Spaulding story. Solomon Spaulding, a clergyman of Amity, Pennsylvania, died in 1816. He wrote a romance to which no name other than "Manuscript Story" was given, and which, but for the unauthorized use of the writer's name and the misrepresentation of his motives, would never have been published. Twenty years after the author's death, one Hurlburt, an apostate "Mormon," announced that he had recognized a resemblance between the "Manuscript Story" and the Book of Mormon, and expressed a belief that the work brought forward by Joseph Smith was nothing but the Spaulding romance revised and amplified. The apparent credibility of the statement was increased by various signed declarations to the effect that the two were alike, though no extracts for comparison were presented. But the "Manuscript Story" was lost for a time, and in the absence of proof to the contrary, reports of the parallelism between the two works multiplied. By a fortunate circumstance, in 1884, President James H. Fairchild, of Oberlin College, and a literary friend of his--a Mr. Rice--while examining a heterogeneous collection of old papers which had been purchased by the gentleman last named, found the original manuscript of the "Story."
After a careful perusal and comparison with the Book of Mormon, President Fairchild declared in an article published in the New York Observer, February 5, 1885:
The theory of the origin of the Book of Mormon in the traditional manuscript of Solomon Spaulding will probably have to be relinquished. * * * Mr. Rice, myself, and others compared it [the Spaulding manuscript] with the Book of Mormon and could detect no resemblance between the two, in general or in detail. There seems to be no name nor incident common to the two. The solemn style of the Book of Mormon in imitation of the English scriptures does not appear in the manuscript. * * * Some other explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon must be found if any explanation is required.
The manuscript was deposited in the library of Oberlin College where it now reposes. Still, the theory of the "Manuscript Found," as Spaulding's story has come to be known, is occasionally pressed into service in the cause of anti-"Mormon" zeal, by some whom we will charitably believe to be ignorant of the facts set forth by President Fairchild. A letter of more recent date, written by that honorable gentleman in reply to an inquiring correspondent, was published in the Millennial Star, Liverpool, November 3, 1898, and is as follows:
OBERLIN COLLEGE, OHIO,
October 17, 1895.
J. R. HINDLEY, ESQ.,
Dear Sir: We have in our college library an original manuscript of Solomon Spaulding--unquestionably genuine.
I found it in 1884 in the hands of Hon. L. L. Rice, of Honolulu, Hawaiian Islands. He was formerly state printer at Columbus, Ohio, and before that, publisher of a paper in Painesville, whose preceding publisher had visited Mrs. Spaulding and obtained the manuscript from her. It had lain among his old papers forty years or more, and was brought out by my asking him to look up anti-slavery documents among his papers.
The manuscript has upon it the signatures of several men of Conneaught, Ohio, who had heard Spaulding read it and knew it to be his. No one can see it and question its genuineness. The manuscript has been printed twice, at least;--once by the Mormons of Salt Lake City, and once by the Josephite Mormons of Iowa. The Utah Mormons obtained the copy of Mr. Rice, at Honolulu, and the Josephites got it of me after it came into my possession.
This manuscript is not the original of the Book of Mormon.
Yours very truly,
JAMES H. FAIRCHILD.
The "Manuscript Story" has been published in full, and comparisons between the same and the Book of Mormon may be made by anyone who has a mind to investigate the subject. 1
:1 For a fuller account of the Book of Mormon, see the author's "Articles of Faith," Lectures 14 and 15; published at Salt Lake City, Utah, 1913.