On this day in 1828, the 22 year old Joseph Smith was supposedly given the Golden plates by the Angel Moroni, effectively starting the Mormon Church. Given that it is the anniversary of this exciting day, I thought I would reprint some of what I wrote two years ago, Joseph Smith and the LDS Ossification. Unlike most of my fellow atheists, I try to take religion seriously and not just discard it as an irrational activity. Because here’s the secret: all human activity is irrational.
Was Joseph Smith a religious visionary or a charlatan? You know, I really think that he was both. And I think that’s true of most religious leaders. Of course, that’s the best way that I can put it. A less charitable person would say, he bought his own nonsense. I mean, his story is amazing with golden plates and the “seer stones” and all that. But I suspect that if he told the truth — he had a mystical or at least creative experience — no one would have cared. It probably didn’t hurt that he told men they could have multiple wives. (I’ve never quite gotten that myself; I always though one wife was too much; I’d be more into a wife that just spends Tuesdays with me.)
And that name! Could there be a more white bread name for a white bread religion? Why, yes; yes there could: John Smith. But still: it’s second in line. But you gotta give the man credit; he was continuing to expand the religion to the end. And if there is one thing that religious people don’t like it’s uncertainty. And that really did lead to his death. And like most of the founders of religions, death was a great career move. I doubt very seriously that the Mormon Church would have become the colossus that it is today without his untimely death.
There is no doubting that he is a very important figure in the history of the United States. In general, I would say he’s been a net harm. But I’m not sure that’s true during his lifetime. That period of spiritual awakening in America was authentic. It is sad to see how religions like the LDS and the JW have ossified into what they are today. Certainly their founders didn’t want that.
But it sure is powerful today. I mean that in a political and economic sense. I’m not sure it adds anything at all to the theological diversity of the world.