September 21, 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the date that Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by the Angel Moroni in Palmyra, New York. According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ canonical account, the 17-year-old Smith was in bed when the divine visitor appeared in his room. The prophet-to-be was then instructed to dig up a sacred record inscribed on ancient golden tablets that was located in a nearby hill.
The resulting text, the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, became a cornerstone for a new world religion. Today, the Latter-day Saint church claims over 17 million members across the globe. But while they have achieved a degree of cultural acceptance, especially among American Christians, there remains a suspicion—sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit—that Mormon beliefs are fundamentally irrational, if not heretical.
While there are plenty of doctrinal principles that have drawn scorn, like their since-rescinded belief in polygamy and an anti-Black racial restriction, the story of an ancient scripture record found on buried gold plates has long served as a lynchpin for external skepticism. How could otherwise rational people believe in what appears to be a fundamentally irrational myth? And does such a belief forfeit their place within mainstream culture?
Yet debates over the boundaries of religious respectability, and whether the Mormons could be accepted therein, reveal as much about America as it does about its most famous homegrown religion.
Charles Dickens once wrote that Joseph Smith’s true audacity was in claiming to have “communion with angels” in an “age of railways.” By that, he meant that the 19th century was supposed to usher in a new enlightened era in which eccentric frauds could no longer dupe the gullible. How is a religion that believes in ancient gold plates, angelic ministrations, and prophetic revelation supposed to function in a rational society?
Smith was raised in a family that believed in a miraculous world. That included buried treasure that could only be acquired through supernatural means. Smith was therefore part of an earnest though unsuccessful circle of treasure diggers who used seer stones to unearth priceless wonders. (It was on one such magic quest that Smith met his wife, Emma Hale.) So when Smith eventually produced a book of scripture—an alleged account of ancient Christians who had inhabited the American continent—his fellow seekers and skeptical neighbors alike connected it to his folkloric practices.
Indeed, few critics felt it necessary to actually examine the Book of Mormon’s text. Its purported origins were scandalous enough. An early dissenter exposed the fact that Smith had used the same seer stone with which he sought treasure to translate the gold plates. In response, Smith refused to detail the exact method through which he produced the Book of Mormon, only insisting it was through “the gift and power of God.” It was an indirect confession that some stories appeared too fanciful.
Of course, some who took the time to read the new scripture were still not impressed. Mark Twain claimed that the real “miracle” of the Book of Mormon’s origins was Smith “keeping awake” while dictating “chloroform in print.”
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But for the scores of believers who followed Smith’s teachings, the book represented an open canon of truth and a sign that God still spoke to a modern world. Their most successful proselytizing tract throughout the 19th century, Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning, argued that the Book of Mormon’s appearance was evidence of the end times. Moroni, who had delivered the gold plates to Joseph Smith, was soon identified as the angel prophesied in the New Testament who would preach the gospel “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6). The image of the Angel Moroni and his horn therefore became the faith’s unofficial symbol, gold statues of which appeared on the top of their temples.
For the remainder of the 19th century, Mormons were proud of their “peculiar” image. Their founding stories set them apart from a fallen society and corrupt Christendom. Eventually other principles, most notably polygamy, became their doctrinal center. But when the church was forced to renounce their distinctive practices at the end of the 19th century, and encouraged to adopt more mainstream culture in the 20th, Latter-day Saints were forced to consider how their faith would fit in a society they had previously scorned.
After decades of slow, uneasy, but steady cultural assimilation, Mormons appeared on the brink of cultural acceptance by the 1970s. Yet an upswing in evangelical anti-Mormonism threatened such advances. Part of the resurgent animosity was rooted in resurrected fears of “cults” that accompanied backlash to the mass murder-suicide at Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in 1978. A wave of books, pamphlets, and movies dredged up old stereotypes of conniving Mormon leaders and duped LDS followers. Most successful was the film The God Makers, which showed a caricatured version of the gold plates story to millions of viewers across the nation.
Mormons were forced once again to adapt. They accomplished this by framing their faith’s story, including that of the Book of Mormon’s origins, as one of Christian sincerity. They announced a subtitle to the Book of Mormon meant to cement their Christian affiliation: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.” Leaders even re-formatted the church’s logo so that the words “Jesus Christ” were far larger than the rest.
The most successful form of improved collaboration, of course, was in the political sphere. Starting with their fervent opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, followed by their central role in opposing same-sex marriage in the 1990s and 2000s, Latter-day Saint leaders formed firm alliances with Evangelical groups that otherwise found their truth claims blasphemous.
Mitt Romney’s presidential runs in the 21st century demonstrated both how little and how much things had changed. During his first campaign for the 2008 GOP nomination, he was blindsided by hostility from those on the left and the right. Progressive critics already prone to question religion pounced on the irrationality of stories like the gold plates. “Someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism,” wrote an editor at Slate, exhibited “a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.”
Meanwhile, evangelical opponents, like the supporters of Mike Huckabee, quickly identified the theological chasm between Mormons and “acceptable” Christianity. The outspoken Reverend Bill Keller went so far as to say that a vote for Romney was “a vote for Satan,” as it would validate Mormonism’s blasphemous beliefs. Though declared an early frontrunner, Romney’s candidacy fizzled well before the GOP convention.
Yet much changed in the succeeding four years. Once exposed to national attention, the vehement anti-Mormon sentiment seemed neutered, or at least drowned out by a cultural fascination with the faith. Dubbed the “Mormon Moment,” 2012 featured a wave of media obsession with the faith in the form of Broadway musicals, television hits, and a successful LDS public relations campaign titled “I’m a Mormon” that highlighted the faithful’s cultural commonalities. Either out of growing tolerance or forced necessity, Republican voters this time embraced Romney’s message. Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress explained that while Mormonism was still obviously a “cult,” he clarified that it was a “theological” cult, not a “sociological” one—a distinction that reflected the Religious Right’s emphasis on political over doctrinal fidelity.
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The supernatural elements of the Latter-day Saint faith’s founding stories no longer appeared so exotic. Stephen Colbert’s satirical Comedy Central character skewered Christians who dared to claim Mormonism illogical. Mormon beliefs that “Joseph Smith received golden plates from an angel on a hill” were “weird,” he protested, only because “everyone knows that Moses got stone tablets from a burning bush on a mountain.” The message was clear: Mormon supernatural claims were no more outlandish than traditional Christianity’s.
Indeed, the Latter-day Saint church has continued to be repackaged to appear less intrusive to mainstream Christians. Its most recent prophet, Russell M. Nelson, encouraged the media to no longer use the “Mormon” nickname, claiming it distracted from their Christian message. He also ceased their century-long production of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, where thousands of saints gathered each summer to witness a dramatic reproduction of Joseph Smith receiving the gold plates on the same New York hillside where he claimed to find them. And while the church has rapidly increased its construction of temples, most of the new sacred buildings no longer feature the Angel Moroni.
This is not to say the church is forfeiting core doctrines. Far from it. Latter-day Saint belief in the Book of Mormon’s historicity, Joseph Smith’s divine calling, and prophetic revelation are as firm as ever before. But after two centuries of heated battles with Christian contemporaries, Smith’s successors have learned how to frame these fundamentals in less threatening ways. The Book of Mormon is no longer posited as a correction to an apostate world, but a supplement to the Christian canon; his followers are not separated from Babylon, but fellow travelers in a world of pilgrims.
Two hundred years later, Joseph Smith’s Moroni story is as salient as ever, even if its tone and significance have evolved.
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