How did the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon Church, get its start? How did Joseph Smith conclude that he had to start a Church? When you ask around, the answers vary from person to person.
“Don’t know how they got their start,” said Maria Escalante of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “I think it had to do with something like wanting freedom.”
“They have this thing about God having to show Himself to them,” says Bobby Tovar. “Something about God telling them to start a Church.”
Quite simply, it started with a question and prayer. It started with Joseph Smith, a fourteen-year-old boy, desiring to know which church he should join.
New York State, like most of the country, was undergoing a religious revival. In cities across the country, church membership was going up. New churches were built; ministers were going out into public squares and spaces to preach the doctrines and beliefs held by their denomination.
Each feeling they were doing the will of God and helping to expand His kingdom.
For a boy of fourteen, it was a turbulent time. “What is to be done,” Joseph Smith had often said to himself. “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any of this be right, which is it, and how shall I know?”
It was after pondering questions such as these that a young Joseph Smith found himself reading from James 1:5 “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.”
That passage of scripture spoke to Joseph Smith in such a way that left him with clear guidance of what he should do next. Joseph decided that he had one of two choices: follow James, and ask God what he must do; or, should he remain, as Joseph Smith put it, “remain in darkness and confusion.”
There are more than a few people who have decided to throw stones at the Mormon Church, or any Church for that matter, over how they began. Each denomination, though differing in belief, all hold to a common set of scriptures, the Bible, but approach the interpretation of them differently.
During Joseph Smith’s childhood, in New York, the order of the day seemed to be one denomination saying they were right, they held all knowledge, and every other church was wrong and in error. Imagine how confusing that could be for a boy of fourteen years of age.
As part of my research for this article, I reached out to Robert Dinsmoor, who shared with us the history of El Paso’s First Ward, the first Mormon Chapel in Texas.
“Palmyra was a town with great religious excitement,” said Robert Dinsmoor. “Great religious revivalism is going on, particularly involving the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, and the Baptist Church.”
The town of Palmyra, during the time of Joseph Smith, and even today, is a place of deep religious roots, and sentiment. Today, as then, where the two main roads cross, there are four churches: Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopalian.
So, what did Joseph do? He decided to pray.
Joseph Smith decided that he needed to follow the direction found in his reading of James. He took himself away from all the noise, the ministers who were clamoring for attention and membership growth and found a quiet spot in the woods. Once there, and for the first time in his life, Joseph prayed vocally unto God to know His will.
What Joseph Smith did is not all that radical, or unheard, or new. The New Testament, in Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all things shall be added unto you.”
By searching, by praying, Joseph was seeking out, first and foremost, the Kingdom of God. By seeking, by praying, he received his answer.
As Joseph Smith was in the woods, earnestly praying to Heavenly Father, he began to feel despair and darkness. To him, it seemed, the enemy had come to drag him, as Joseph Smith recounts, to ruin.
Then, “it no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound,” recounted Joseph Smith. “When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
This is where most people I’ve spoken to begin to have problems.
“He says that God and Jesus came to him,” says Chew Lopez. “That’s never happened to anyone.”
“Who has seen Jesus?” asks May Stewart. “No one. No one has seen Jesus after his death and His going up into heaven.”
“When has God ever appeared? I’ll tell you,” said Jake Dewall when we were discussing this, “never.”
When talking about this, the beginning of the Mormon Church, God not appearing to anyone is the one objection I hear the most. To me, that is a very closed-minded, narrow approach to what has been written in the Old Testament.
Genesis 12:7 it says, “The LORD appeared to Abram…” You’ll also read this in Genesis 17:1 and 18:1.
We have God appearing in the burning bush when He was talking to Moses. We have God talking about when he appeared to Jacob in Genesis 35:1. In 1 Kings 3:5 we have the God appearing to Solomon in a dream. These citations beg the question of when did God stop appearing to people on Earth?
“God, our loving creator, has in the past, and will continue in the present, to appear to His children on Earth,” says Brother Michael, a Franciscan and teacher back in New York City.
“I will not speak beyond my scope of knowledge,” said Brother Michael, “I want to keep it to the topic of God appearing to others. Why would anyone, regardless of faith, or denominational belief deny that God is making appearances to man, like the gift of prophecy, has come to an end?”
(Brother Michael is speaking of the belief among some denominations that miracles, prophecy, and other events found in the Bible have ended, or are not found in our world today. Many denominations believe that these came to an end with the ascension of Jesus or the passing of the Apostles)
“God,” says Brother Michael, “is infinite. He is all-powerful. Who’s to say He didn’t appear to Joseph Smith? Who’s to say He’s not appearing to someone right this moment? We must not ascribe our limited abilities to a God who is not bound by limits!”
The whole reason Joseph Smith hid away in prayer was to ask of God what church if any, he should join.
The answer he received was to join none of them.
For Joseph Smith, three years would pass before he had another Heavenly visitor. During that time, Joseph would go about his daily life. Farming, working with his hands, putting food on the table. That may have been Joseph’s daily life. There was to be more, after that first vision.
During those three years, Joseph faced ridicule and persecution for saying he had seen both God and Jesus Christ in the forest. People would mock him. Others would say he was possessed. Still, others would tell him to deny what he had seen. Through it all, Joseph Smith stood fast.
Then, Joseph Smith prayed again. This time, he wanted to know his standing before God. He wanted to know, maybe, why all of this was happening to him. Why people were mocking him, and not believing him.
While praying, the Angel Moroni appeared to him.
“He called me by name,” wrote Joseph Smith, “and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”
“Moroni,” Robert Dinsmoor said, “is the last prophet in the Book of Mormon.”
“[Moroni] repeated various scriptures to Joseph Smith, including Malachi, including dealing with the prophecies of Joel, and dealing with a matter that Joseph Smith was to do,” said Robert Dinsmoor.
Three times, throughout the night, Moroni would appear to Joseph Smith, giving him instruction on what he should do, and how he should carry out those instructions. During these visits, Moroni told Joseph Smith of the Golden Plates on which, what is now called the Book of Mormon are written.
It was during the next day that Joseph Smith to Hill Cumorah and searched out the area where the Moroni had told him the plates were buried. When he unearthed the plates, he found that he could not lift them. No matter what he did, or how he did it, he could not take them out of where they rested. He was told, in the visions of the night before, that he could not be able to take them until the time was
Each year, at the end of the year, Joseph Smith would visit the place where the plates were hidden. At each visit, during those four years, Moroni would speak to Joseph Smith, and provide instruction for the what Smith was to do in the very near future.
Then, the time came for Joseph Smith to remove the plates and begin translating them. He unearthed them one final time and was able to remove them.
“People all around were hearing rumours that Joseph Smith might have some golden plates or be able to get some golden plates,” said Robert Dinsmoor. “There were people, Joseph Smith let the Methodist Minister know about his vision of Heavenly Father and Christ, so there was a lot of opposition coming towards the Smith family.”
“Prophets, as found in the Old Testament, did not have an easy lot,” says Brother Michael. “Many were despised for that special relationship they had with God. Many were accepted, yes. Many, still, were despised. Even Jesus was not all that welcome in His home city.”
Brother Michael, though not a Mormon, says it’s easy to see how Joseph Smith, nor the message he was delivering would be accepted right away.
“Jesus Christ has said that no prophet is accepted in his hometown,” shares Brother Michael. “The human condition is such that when sinful society is confronted by God, through His prophets, about their sin, they are most inhospitable.”
The same was true for Joseph Smith. As he was translating the Book of Mormon, as he was gathering those who would become the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he was reviled, persecuted, and hated.
“Imagine,” says Brother Michael, “if a prophet were called by God today. How would they be treated? I know the LDS Church feels that their leaders are prophets, called of God. Look at these men, how does a sinful world treat them, react towards them and their message?”
This marks the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When Joseph Smith began to translate the plates into what would become the Book of Mormon, he began to see this as a restoration of the Church in the fullness of time.
Joseph Smith would later pray for, and receive the restoration of the priesthood, beginning with the Aaronic Priesthood. He and Oliver Cowdery would receive instruction from John the Baptist, and they would baptise each other. Temples would be founded; a migration
would begin for the Saints to move west, to Utah.
Eventually, Joseph Smith would be arrested, and martyred (what else would you call having a bunch of people, armed to the teeth, shooting at you while you are locked in a cell?)
There is so much more I could write about the beginnings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There’s so much I left out of this article! I do invite you to take the time to watch the video above with Robert Dinsmoor.
The larger part of the video is a presentation he made that talks about the start of the Church, as well as giving you a glimpse into historic sites along that journey.