THE CHURCH of the Latter-day Saints has habitually been regarded by outsiders as esoteric, cultish, and deeply suspect. Once, Mormons were physically attacked for their beliefs. Now, the religion is treated more respectfully, although still with an edge of condescension. If it is made fun of, as in the Broadway hit “The Book of Mormon,’’ that can pass as a sign of acceptance in a culture that depends on the Catholic nun as a comedic staple.
Yet the religion remains mysterious to most gentiles, as Mormons refer to non-members. Secret rituals, authoritarian structure, sacred texts that seem eccentric, curious doctrines about the dead, a contested past that includes polygamy, and certitude of faith that can seem intolerant all exist side by side with impressive growth in membership, positive values that lead to undeniable success in business and family life, and the powerful arrival of Mormons on the American political scene. Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, together with the long-shot candidacy of Jon Huntsman, make the Mormon religion a fact to be reckoned with in politics today.
Yet as a force in American public life, Mormonism isn’t something new. Far from being oddball, the Latter-day Saints - or LDS, as Mormons commonly refer to themselves - have roots in the founding vision of this nation; the movement thrived as that vision expanded, moving west; it survived a particularly American testing; and came ultimately to embody core American virtues.
The first principle of inter-religious encounter is that each tradition has the right to be taken seriously on its own terms; outsiders must try to see beliefs and practices of the other as if from inside. The Puritans who arrived in New England in the early 1600s understood themselves as reenacting the Exodus of Israel, coming into the Promised Land as the new elect, fulfilling a Messianic vocation to establish a New Jerusalem. As this vision was reinvigorated during the Second Great Awakening from 1790 to 1840, a young farm boy in upstate New York was seized by it.
Born into a large, religiously unaffiliated family in 1805, Joseph Smith was barely educated, but nevertheless steeped in the Christian Scriptures. The diction and content of the King James Version of the Bible were second-nature to him - as is evident in the ingenious adaptation he produced in fevered dictations out of a trance. His revelation, enshrined mainly in the Book of Mormon, was an explosive reiteration of primal American themes: wilderness, exodus, divine election, theocracy - and always, Zion. For the teenage Smith, ancient Palestine gave way to a new sacred geography - his own neighborhood of New York.
What was only a metaphor to the Puritans became literal for Smith beginning in 1823, when the angel Moroni gave him a vision that actually brought the Bible to the New World. What Smith saw, the Book of Mormon recounts: a lost tribe of Israel plucked by God from the Babylonian destruction six centuries before Christ, and coming by boat to the Western Hemisphere; the risen Christ arriving to minister to that tribe; the community’s ultimate destruction. In the throes of that destruction, the last prophet, named Mormon, organizes the clan’s story and entrusts it to his son Moroni, together with the promise of a future prophet to whom this true religion would one day be revealed. This prophet turns out to be Smith himself.
Smith created the Book of Mormon as a mystical translation of an ancient text inscribed on golden plates which he discovered buried in the ground on a hilltop near his home. Moroni himself had buried the plates nearly a millennium and a half before, as catastrophe befell his people. Soon after Smith finished translating them, the golden plates were lost.
For an outsider, the apparent outlandishness of this account can be mitigated by noting its echoes in prior revelations - like the vision of Mohammed, and his dictation of the Koran, or the Revelation of St. John of Patmos, whose imagined New Jerusalem sparked the Christian apocalypticism that now includes Smith. That these other texts are ancient is essential to their respectability. That Smith’s is new, with the machinery of its inspiration showing, makes it hard to credit.
Though the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, dates itself to nearly three millennia ago, its claim, unlike the Bible’s, is supported by no archeology or accepted scholarly criticism. But arguments over “authenticity’’ may miss the larger point. The main mark of spiritual genius is in consequence, and by that standard Joseph Smith was the real thing. The Book of Mormon, a work of potent narrative coherence, is as authentic as the lives it has now inspired for nearly two centuries.
Smith’s strange vision could almost seem routine in a western region of New York rife with utopian sects, spawning the Shakers, Seventh-day Adventists, and forebears of today’s Disciples of Christ. Religious ardor was a mode of survival amidst danger and loneliness. Reassurances of a merciful God invested not just in a Holy Land far away but here, with us, fevered the imaginations of people on the impoverished margin of an uncertain young nation. Smith’s, too.
Yet in the turmoil of an America inventing itself, Smith’s vision would be attacked, and his movement would be repeatedly forced into exodus. New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois - ever westward. Revelations continued to come to Smith on the fly. His doctrines struck others as heresy. The frontier constantly defined the faith - a Biblical patriarchy up against ill-defined local and federal legal structures. At times, the movement fractured on its own absolutes. Conflict was redoubled with gentiles, and among the Mormons themselves, when a Smith revelation sanctioned “plural marriage,’’ permanently associating the religion with polygamy. Eventually, at the age of 38, in 1844, Smith was murdered in the custody of an Illinois militia. His martyrdom only sealed the faith of those who followed him, a legion by then of about 35,000 people. The Church of the Latter-day Saints was launched, never looking back.
In traditional Christianity, the age of revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. Smith’s innovation includes the bold claim that revelation continues - and continues in America. Not only did the risen Jesus appear in the New World, but, when he returns in the second coming, he will do so, Smith said, in a certain place in Missouri. That will bring creation full circle, since Adam and Eve’s Eden was in Missouri, too. Such beliefs make explicit the core Mormon conviction that America is - and always has been - central to God’s plan for the world. That aggrandizement, though, reflects a broader American current just then surfacing, for example, in the idea of Manifest Destiny.
Mormonism may have roots in Calvinist Puritanism, but in important ways it broke free. Instead of the sinner standing alone before the judging God, or coming singly to Jesus, the Mormons stand together with each other in a radical communitarianism. No rugged individualism here. Family was the absolute value, a doctrine that initially reinforced a problematic - indeed, abusive - marital system that, willy nilly, vastly multiplied fertility. Commitment to the clan turned the religion into a people.
And, taking off from Smith’s own affirming personality, Mormon dogma left behind all Puritan notions of humanity’s innate unworthiness. Instead of Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God,’’ Smith celebrated God’s beloved favorites. Hope, optimism, positive energy, expectation of success, success itself a sign of divine favor: such are the tenets - and appeal - of the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Indeed, the religion provides mythical underpinning to the essential American dream. “What Whitman sang,’’ Harold Bloom wrote, “Joseph Smith actually embodied.’’
But where is Whitman’s song today? The blues have become America’s music in the early 21st century, with economic troubles, political dysfunction, and nightmare foreign entanglements. The mood of the United States has rarely been more in need of rejuvenation. Perhaps that explains the Mormon arrival. Long derided as a cult and kept at bay as somehow not American enough, the Church of the Latter-day Saints, precisely because it survived and changed under such negative pressures, may now offer a conflicted nation an unexpected image of positive possibility. After all, the Book of Mormon relates a tragic tale, yet is itself the happy outcome. America is in search of such an alchemy.James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.