A Brief History of Mormonism


Share post

1. Introduction: History in Three Perspectives

Anyone who studies the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quickly encounters a history with three perspectives.

First, we have the perspective of Joseph Smith Jr. His published works and recorded sermons are both voluminous and fantastic. Those closest to him sometimes corroborate his story, sometimes they do not. Either way, Joseph Smith paints a distinct picture that modern people can take or leave depending on how much they trust him.

Second, we have the perspective of verifiable history. This perspective consists of hard facts, verifiable claims, historical records, first-hand accounts, eye-witness testimonies, etc. Piecing together a clear historical picture is challenging, but not impossible.

Third, we have the perspective of the LDS Church. This version is reinforced by sacred art, LDS publications, General Conference talks, and cherished folklore. This perspective often bears little resemblance to the previous two listed.

Three Perspectives: An Example

The controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham provides a vivid illustration of how each of these three perspectives view the same event differently. The Book of Abraham is part of the Pearl of Great Price, a work enshrined in the LDS canon. In the early 1830s, Joseph Smith procured an ancient Egyptian funerary scroll. Using the scroll, he created the Book of Abraham. The scroll was lost and later assumed a casualty of the Great Chicago Fire, but still later found again in 1967. Each perspective accepts the facts above. From there, however, the perspectives quickly diverge.

Perspective #1: Joseph Smith says that he translated the scroll. Indeed, the title plainly reads, “Translated from the Papyrus, by Joseph Smith.”

Perspective #2: When the scroll (known as the Joseph Smith Papyri) surfaced again in 1967, Egyptologists finally had an opportunity to check on Joseph’s translation. The Joseph Smith Papyri is an artifact quite common among Egyptian relics and easily interpreted by Egyptian experts. Joseph’s “translation,” these experts say, is no translation at all. Not a single word of the Book of Abraham can be called a translation in the normal definition of the term. According to Egyptologists, Joseph Smith was completely ignorant to the type, purpose, date, and significance of the Egyptian document he held.

Perspective #3: Even though the scroll was re-discovered in 1967 and Joseph’s “translation” exposed, the LDS Church didn’t offer an official explanation until 2014 in Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. In this response, a team of anonymous LDS scholars conclude:

The veracity of the Book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys.

Joseph Smith says he translated an Egyptian scroll. Verifiable history says he didn’t. The LDS Church says that translation or no, the important thing is the product. Here are three, irreconcilable perspectives. When these three perspectives disagree — as they often do — you must choose which you will believe.

Teaching Three-Perspective History

In general, the main body of this document will tell the story from the perspective of the LDS Church, because this is the version most accepted by her members. As you read, you’ll encounter footnote icons revealing further writing and research. We use these spaces to provide information from the other two perspectives. Here’s an example.

A second reason for this approach stems from the testimony of former Mormons who’ve come to a saving knowledge of Christ. They unanimously advise born-again Christians not to push the weaknesses of LDS history too hard. Mormons, they say, must embark on a personal journey of discovery.

Our goal is to equip you, the born-again Christian, with a working knowledge of the most meaningful events of Mormon history. At this point you might be saying to yourself, “I don’t need to know about the history, I just want to know more about the LDS faith.” And that would be a fair point, except that for your LDS friend, the history and the faith are inseparable.

2. Beginnings

It was spring, 1820, and the eastern seaboard of the United States was alive with spiritual fervor. The Second Great Awakening, sparked by the itinerant preaching of Methodist evangelists, challenged cold orthodoxy and moral degradation. Joseph Smith Jr (1805–44), 14 at the time, had himself lived an itinerant life, moving seven times to places like Sharon, VT; Lebanon, NH; and, ultimately, to Palmyra, NY. There, in Palmyra, observing the revivalism at hand, Smith went off into the woods to pray alone.

He wanted to know which religious tradition to follow. In the location now called the Sacred Grove, Smith says he experienced the First Vision, in which Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, told Joseph not to follow any of the established churches, for they had all fallen away in the Great Apostasy. Joseph, they said, would be their instrument to restore Christ’s original church to the earth.1

The Book of Mormon

The next few years (1823–1830) brought considerable change into Joseph Smith’s life. He met Emma Hale in 1825 and married her in 1827.2 Even more significant for the LDS Church, Joseph claimed that in 1823 the angel Moroni began a series of visitations telling him about the location of golden plates that contained the history of Jesus’s activities among ancient American peoples. Once a year, for the next four years, Joseph faithfully visited the Hill Cumorah where Moroni taught, warned, and tested the young prophet. Finally, in 1827, Joseph received the plates from Moroni and quickly set about to translate the book.3

Because the golden plates contained a language unknown to Joseph (called Reformed Egyptian4), he donned a tool included with the plates, the Urim and Thumim, which revealed the English translation. He then dictated the words to a friend named Martin Harris. One hundred and sixteen pages into the translation, the two decided to take a break. Moroni retrieved the golden plates along with the Urim and Thumim and Harris excitedly took the manuscript home to show his wife. What happened next is lost to history, along with the 116 pages of manuscript.

Joseph was, of course, devastated at this setback. But upon his repentance for foolishly letting the book out of his possession, Moroni returned the golden plates with assurances that the lost material would be restored. Over the next nine months, Joseph enlisted a series of scribes and began a prodigious effort to produce the Book of Mormon,5 which he finalized in the spring of 1830.

The Book of Mormon tracks four migrations of Jewish descendants to the New World and their history in it, a record spanning from 2247 BC at the first migration to the destruction of the Nephites in approximately 400 AD.6 Joseph’s “Golden Bible,” although derided by his contemporaries, stirred curiosity and began attracting followers. Many challenges awaited Joseph Smith and his fledgling group of disciples, but as time went on, the movement took hold. If Joseph truly was to restore Christ’s Church to the world, his new book would pave the way.

Growth, Exile, and Disaster

While the Book of Mormon was being translated, other important events occurred. On May 15, 1829, Smith and one of his closest associates, Oliver Cowdery, received a visitation from John the Baptist, who restored the Aaronic Priesthood and bestowed it upon the two men.7

Approximately two weeks later, the men received more heavenly guests, this time Peter, James, and John. These three conferred upon Joseph and Oliver the greater priesthood, the Melchizedek priesthood, and ordained them as the first two elders of the LDS Church.

Armed with the Book of Mormon and the power of the restored priesthood, Joseph began gathering converts to his new church (officially incorporated on April 6, 1830). The movement grew quickly and, in 1831, moved to Kirtland, OH where infrastructure like the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles developed. Kirtland is also where “plural marriage” or “celestial marriage” began.8

Growth dominates the narrative of Kirtland. Converts came weekly and birthrates skyrocketed. However, beginning in Ohio and continuing in other places like Independence, MO, the Saints developed a nettlesome penchant for conflict with the locals. Modern Latter-day Saints attribute the strife to religious persecution. The locals back then said it was for polygamy and theft.

In 1839, the Saints settled in the small town of Commerce, IL, which they purchased and renamed Nauvoo (inspired by a Hebrew word in Isaiah 52:7 meaning “lovely”). In Nauvoo, big things started to happen. The town grew to some 12,000 residents, rivaling Chicago. Smith raised a 5,000-man Mormon militia, collected revelations that became known as The Doctrines and Covenants, and ran for the office of President of the United States.

No sooner had security and prosperity taken hold when storm clouds blotched the horizon. On April 7, 1842 Joseph received a revelation that required a separate council, known later as the Council of Fifty. This council, tasked with bringing forth a worldwide theocratic kingdom, was chaired by Joseph Smith. The council’s members bestowed upon Joseph the title of “Prophet, Priest, and King.”

Several people in Nauvoo perceived an untoward power-grab and formed a dissenting faction. They bought a printing press and, on June 7, 1844, published criticisms of Joseph Smith and his polygamy. The newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor — whose byline read in all caps: THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH — ran just one edition; however, the events emanating from that publication are gravely consequential.

As a result of the criticisms, Smith sent the militia to destroy the printing press. Residents of nearby townships cried treason and called for war. Upheaval snowballed and regional authorities only barely restored peace. The Governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, decided to imprison Joseph (among others) in nearby Carthage for causing a riot. Meanwhile, as Ford and the courts attempted to work out a solution to their technicolor problem, further disaster struck.

On the evening of June 27, 1844, 200 armed vigilantes stormed the Carthage jail. Joseph fired in self-defense, emptying a pistol smuggled to him earlier by a Mormon confederate. The mob, now totally enraged, swarmed into Joseph’s cell firing as they came. Whether Smith died before, during, or after his fall from the third-story window, history cannot say. History can attest, however, that Joseph Smith was murdered that night in premeditated cold blood. In the eyes of the LDS Church, acute religious persecution led to their leader’s tragic martyrdom; the presence of his death mask in the Church History Museum just outside Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City connotes the powerful devotion Latter-day Saints feel for him. In the eyes of others, wanton lust for women and power led inexorably to an untimely demise.

3. Crisis, Migration, and Growth

Joseph’s death touched off a leadership struggle that is still debated today. Complicating factors included the lack of a succession plan, the absence of several prominent leaders, the death of Joseph’s second-in-command, Hyrum, alongside him, and running tensions with hot-blooded locals. Several men vied for the top leadership position,9 but the decision ultimately boiled down to two: Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon. On the morning of August 8, 1844, both delivered speeches advocating their cause, but Brigham Young’s stirring address (many believed it was supernatural) won the day.10

Young may have lacked Joseph’s personal magnetism, but he was an extremely efficient administrator. That skill and others were necessary in the search for a more permanent and peaceful place for the Saints to dwell. Permanence he achieved; peace would have to wait. Young accepted the notion that polygamy would not be normalized in the United States and determined to move outside the country to the Great Salt Lake Valley, which belonged to Mexico at the time. This decision sparked the Saints’ harrowing 1,300-mile exodus to the New Zion. No sooner had they settled into their new home when the United States acquired the region as a prize from the Mexican-American War. Disappointed but undeterred, Young accepted a handsome consolation prize in the form of the governorship of the newly formed Utah Territory.

The first few years in the Great Basin were lean. Dwindling food stocks, confrontation with Native Americans, and persistent tension with the federal government made LDS permanence in the region an open question. The Saints persevered though, and by 1852, things started looking up. An estimated 20,000 Mormons resided in and around Salt Lake City — by 1866, that number would triple. The California Gold Rush and the trans-continental railroad brought unprecedented commerce to the region and stabilized financial affairs.11 By 1878, the LDS Church boasted a membership in excess of 100,000, a number that would double that number again in fifteen years.

The only remaining hurdle to full legitimacy as a religious group and to Utah statehood was the stubborn practice of plural marriage, which had become an open secret after the Saints’ arrival in Utah. Years earlier, in 1857, the Federal Government weakly attempted to halt “celestial marriage” by a show of force.12 By 1887, Congress was done playing games. The Edmonds-Tucker Act disincorporated the LDS Church, criminalized polygamy, and threatened to seize assets exceeding $50,000. The LDS Church fought these laws, of course, and took their complaint all the way to the Supreme Court but lost their final appeal in 1890.

That same year, while facing certain government takeover, Prophet Wilford Woodruff received a vision and announced it in a document called the Manifesto. Polygamy, he said, was over. Even so, many Latter-day Saints, some in high-ranking positions, simply ignored Woodruff’s proclamation. Polygamy contined to be so widespread that Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith issued the Second Manifesto fourteen years later, which threatened ex-communication upon those who took plural wives and upon those who performed such ceremonies. Several branches broke away and continue to practice polygamy to this day, but in retrospect, the Second Manifesto effectively killed polygamy among mainstream Mormons. Utah was granted statehood in 1896.

From the early days of Kirtland (1831) to the publication of the Second Manifesto in 1904, the history of the LDS Church had been one of perpetual conflict within and without. The arrival of the twentieth century put these battles in the rearview and allowed the LDS Church breathing space to pursue a relatively uninterrupted plan of consolidation and expansion.

Consolidation came by way of expanding administrative levels (like additional Quorums of the Seventies), education both higher (Brigham Young, Weber State, and Dixie State Universities) and lower (Primary was created in 1878; the LDS Church and the Boy Scouts of America joined forces in 1913), massive print-media publications (beginnings of Deseret Book; magazines like Improvement Era, Young Women’s Journal, Ensign, and Liahona, to name a few), and the clarification of Mormon doctrine (James Talmage, Bruce McKonkie, and Joseph Fielding Smith being the most influential).

Expansion is most clearly visible in Temple construction and missionary calling. Although the building of the first LDS Temple outside of Utah did not arrive until 1919, the year 2000 saw an explosion with 34 Temples dedicated. At present, there are approximately 160 Temples in use with several others in restoration or under construction. Missions began early in the LDS Church’s history but saw marked growth in the late twentieth century.

Today the LDS Church boasts approximately 400 mission stations worldwide and reports nearly 100,000 missionaries serving in various capacities. By 2010, a full two-thirds of Utahans were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mandated tithing and other business ventures brings untold billions to the LDS Church annually, though the church has not released any financial data in the United States since 1959.

4. Retrospect: History in 3P

If you’ve made it this far, you may have asked yourself, Why tell this story? We have told it to illustrate the essential difference between Biblical Christianity and mainstream Mormonism. Many have attempted to define that difference in doctrinal terms: the Eternality of God, the equality of God the Son, or salvation by faith. These differences are real, but they’re streams from a source.

The essential difference between Biblical Christianity and mainstream Mormonism lies in how they answer this question: Who decides what is true? On the one hand, Biblical Christianity accepts that the Triune God is the ultimate Arbiter of truth and that He has granted sufficient truth in the Bible.

On the other, Mormons generally assume truth arbitration for themselves — they decide what is true based on their own emotional verification. Latter-day Saints, put crudely, believe that Mormonism is true because their hearts tell them it’s true. Folklore trumps historical fact; emotion reigns over biblical revelation. As with the Book of Abraham, no matter how obvious Joseph Smith’s fraud is to the outside observer, Latter-day Saints regard the Book of Abraham as true because they feel it should be true.

The good news is not all Latter-day Saints define truth so subjectively. Some understand that truth stands outside of themselves. Some even realize they haven’t been told the whole truth. Those are the Mormons we can help you evangelize. If a Mormon believes himself/herself to be truth’s final arbiter, we can only wait for this fallen world to grind that delusion to powder.

Through these tools, we have given you enough knowledge to converse effectively with your LDS friend and to find out how they define the historical truth of Mormonism. If your friends see the challenges, if the facts aren’t lining up, if they begin to see that their experience in the LDS Church doesn’t square with reality, then you are now poised to guide them to the truth of God’s life-saving message in Christ-crucified. May God equip you for this task and bless your evangelistic efforts.


  1. For at least four reasons, many believe Joseph invented the First Vision narrative well after the fact to solidify his reputation as a prophet. First, Smith told at least nine substantially different and contradictory versions of the First Vision (History [1832], pp. 1–3; Journal [1835], 9–11, pp. 23–24; History [1838–1856], A-1, pp. 2–3; “Church History,” Times and Seasons (1842), vol. 3, pp. 706–707; A[n] Interesting Account, pp. 3–5; Ein Ruf aus der Wüste, pp. 14–16; Levi Richards’ Journal, 11 June 1843; “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 15 Sept. 1843; Alexander Neibaur’s Journal, 24 May 1844).

    Although the LDS Church acknowledges the varying accounts and goes to great lengths to reconcile them, other resources generally follow the 1838 account. Second, Smith never mentions the vision to anyone until 15 years after the fact. Third, the historical details he provides about Palmyra at the time of the vision are inaccurate – the events he describes didn’t occur until 1823–24 (Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith’s Strange Account of the First Vision, p. 3). Fourth, in 1826, Joseph’s reputation was tarnished when he was arrested, tried, and found guilty for being “a disorderly person and an imposter” (see New York vs. Joseph Smith, March 26, 1826). Smith had claimed the ability to find ancient treasure by peering into “peep stones” and had used them to swindle Josiah Stowell out of salary, room, and board.

  2. The LDS Church frequently recounts an idyllic romance for the courtship and marriage of Joseph and Emma (for example, see Carr, Ryan. When Emma and Joseph Met; Church Magazines, October 2004). Missing from accounts like these are several important details. Emma’s father, Isaac, so strongly disapproved of Joseph’s pursuit that the couple secretly eloped on January 17, 1827 and were married the following day. Emma became the first of many women married to Joseph Smith. Exactly how many is unknown, though efforts to total them range from 27–51, at least 11 of whom were already married when Joseph “sealed” them to himself.

  3. In Moroni: Messenger of the Restoration, the LDS Church tersely summarizes the event: “Joseph met Moroni and received the gold plates.” Joseph and Emma’s account provides a few more details. Joseph and Emma went to Hill Cumorah late at night, dressed in all black, riding in a black carriage driven by black horses. Joseph found a box containing three items: the golden plates, Urim and Thumim (crystal glasses intended for translation), and the Sword of Laban (a steel blade with a golden hilt that supposedly dated back to the 6th century BC). Joseph describes the plates as about six by eight inches, slightly thinner than tin sheeting, and when stacked, about six inches tall. Three rings held the plates together, much like that of a modern binder.

  4. From the perspective of verifiable history, the golden-plate story is extremely dubious.

    1. Pre-Columbian cultures neither sought nor smelted gold the way Europeans did. And when they did, they never made gold sheets.
    2. Pre-Columbian cultures did not record histories in books, much less like the one Joseph Smith described.
    3. DNA evidence definitively disproves all Book of Mormon assertions of Jewish descendants in the Americas prior to Columbus (see DNA vs. The Book of Mormon [2003], dir. Joel Kramer and Jeremy Reyes, produced by Living Hope Ministries).
    4. There has never been any record anywhere of the language “Reformed Egyptian.”
    5. The fact that Moroni collected the golden plates makes verification impossible.
    6. Smith’s story is completely at odds with the biblical pattern. To create the New Testament, God used the most common language (Koine Greek), recorded on the most common materials (papyrus), written from the most commonly visited cities (Rome, Ephesus, Corinth, Jerusalem, etc), and preserved thousands and thousands of hand-written copies from all over the world that we still possess today.
  5. LDS art consistently illustrates Joseph’s translation work in an altogether different fashion from first-hand reports. According to LDS art, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery sit at a table together and study the golden plates in mutual contemplation. Joseph, however, tells of how he sat in another part of the house, placed his favorite rock into the bottom of an upturned hat, buried his face in the hat, and read out the words that appeared in the darkness.

  6. Latter-day Saints frequently marvel at the literary value of the Book of Mormon. Others disagree. Mark Twain offered the most scathing review when he said: “The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so slow and sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration.” The LDS Church hasn’t been completely satisfied with the product, either. Since its publication in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been changed over 3,900 times. Many of those changes affect major doctrinal categories like the doctrines of God (1 Nephi 11:21), Christ (1 Nephi 11:18), and salvation (Alma 29:4). Jerald and Sandra Tanner have been, perhaps, the most outspoken critics of these changes as they have carefully chronicled every change in 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon (1996).

  7. The details of this “restoration” are curious to those acquainted with the Old Testament. First, Aaronic Priests were required to descend from a very specific blood line — the family of Aaron through the tribe of Levi (see Exodus 27:21; 28:1ff). Furthermore, Old Testaments priests were dedicated not by baptism, but by spattering ram’s blood on the priests’ right ear, the thumb of their right hand, and the big toe of their right foot (see Leviticus 8:23).

  8. In 2014, the LDS Church produced an essay entitled, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo. The second sentence of the essay, however, betrays a dishonest interpretation: “In biblical times, the Lord commanded some of His people to practice plural marriage.” A footnote directs the reader to Genesis 16, the story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. There, Abram cooperates with Sarai’s plan to “help” God by having a child through Sarai’s servant girl, Hagar. The resulting drama brings Ishmael to the scene only to be sent away from the family approximately fourteen years later (see Genesis 21:8ff). The truth is, God never commanded anybody to marry multiple wives. God may have tolerated a cultural blind-spot in some of His leaders, but by no means endorsed the practice. On the contrary, God consistently shows the destruction that comes when man violates His intention for monogamous marriage. The LDS Church is falsely attempting to build biblical support for polygamy. If God commanded it then, the reasoning goes, He could command it now.

  9. Of those angling for power, the most intriguing drama surrounded Joseph’s younger brother, Samuel Harrison Smith. Samuel was one of the Eight Witnesses and a prominent member of the LDS Church. According to William Clayton (Smith’s private secretary), Joseph had tabbed Samuel as third-in-command behind himself and Hyrum. Others agreed and were preparing to thrust him into the Prophetic office. Yet, just when the political winds seemed favorable, Samuel suddenly took ill and died two weeks later. Rumors swirled when the Smith clan loudly suspected foul play, accusing Brigham Young of poisoning Samuel. Young, for his part, denied the claim; however, in a plot dripping with irony, many in Brigham Young’s family believed that he succumbed to arsenic poisoning some thirty-three years later.

  10. Division among the Saints fell essentially along the lines of polygamy/anti-polygamy. Emma Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others were staunch anti-polygamists; Young and his followers, of course, represented the “the Principle.” Emma remarried outside the LDS Church and eventually joined the RLDS Church (“Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”; later named “Community of Christ”) where her son, Joseph Smith III, was Prophet. Sidney Rigdon became the Prophet of yet another branch (called “Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion”) and moved to Pittsburg. Brigham Young eventually married 55 women (estimates vary), at least six of whom were married to other men upon their “sealing” to Brigham https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brigham-young-and-polygamy\*b_1792555.

  11. By far, the most outstanding event (and the most hotly debated) from this era of Mormon History was the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a mass killing spree that claimed somewhere between 120–140 travelers from Arkansas on September 11, 1857. That Mormons were responsible for the massacre is beyond question. Which Mormons were responsible? is the central question. It is also the question history may never definitively know, despite the oceans of ink spilled to get to the bottom of it. Although it seems inconceivable to many that Brigham Young remained ignorant of the scheme prior to its execution, no smoking gun beyond hearsay links him directly to the slaughter. Several lengthy books chronicling the event are in print today. For a brief review, see Smithsonian Magazine, The Aftermath of Mountain Meadows by Gilbert King (February, 2012).

  12. U.S. President James Buchanan was gravely offended by flagrant Mormon polygamy and accused Brigham Young of running a personal theocracy. He sent 2,500 troops to cow the Mormons into obedience and to install a new governor of the Utah territory. These troop movements became known to history as “the Utah War” and ended badly for both parties. Whereas the Eastern press scoffed, calling it “Buchanan’s Blunder,” Mormons suffered grave financial consequences while under military occupation. Although federal troops remained in Utah following this cold war, they were immediately recalled eastward at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-brink-of-war-48447228/.